/ 28 August 2012

SA’s Paralympians set to take London by storm

As Natalie Du Toit prepares to bow out of formal competition
As Natalie Du Toit prepares to bow out of formal competition

The Paralympics kick off in London on Wednesday, and this year's event promises to be the most high-profile yet. More than 2.3-million tickets to the event have already been snapped up and more are expected to be sold in the coming days.

In addition, the Games will be broadcast to more countries than ever before, and will receive increased screen-time from broadcasters.

South Africa's 61-member Paralympic team left for London last week to great fanfare. There are high hopes that the team, which includes sprinter Oscar Pistorius and swimmer Natalie Du Toit (who is set to retire from formal competition after the games) will net a respectable haul of medals, after Team SA brought home 30 medals from the Beijing games in 2008.

Du Toit and Pistorius may be the country's most well-known Paralympians but South Africa will be fielding a ream of talented young athletes in London.

The team includes 61 athletes who will compete in seven sporting codes – athletics, cycling, swimming, rowing, equestrian, and wheelchair basketball and tennis.

Thrill of independence
Among them are rower Sandra Khumalo and wheelchair tennis champion Lucas Sithole, one of SA's four wheelchair tennis players competing at the Paralympics.

Khumalo, who was paralysed in a car accident in 2005, is South Africa's sole representative in the rowing category. The 31-year old began rowing two years ago and only recently began training with the Paralympic team. Speaking to East Coast Radio shortly before leaving for the Olympics, Khumalo said "Out there alone on the water for the first time I felt independent. As a paraplegic I have to be dependent on others for help every day, so it was an absolutely thrilling feeling. Rowing makes me feel whole."

There are high hopes that Sithole, who was selected as one of the Mail & Guardian's 200 Young South Africans in 2011, will bring home gold from the Paralympics. The 25-year- old became a triple-amputee at age 10, when he fell under a train. Between studying for a diploma at sports management at the University of Johannesburg, Sithole has made a name for himself on the international wheelchair tennis circuit. He won the 2007 Melbourne Open and was runner-up at another tournament in Sydney.

Levelling the playing field
South Africa has fielded athletes in only seven of the sporting codes at the Paralympics, which offers a total of 21 sports including 5- and 7-a-side football, judo, archery, shooting, sitting volleyball, wheelchair fencing and wheelchair rugby.

Some of the sporting codes at the Paralympics are restricted to athletes with only one type of disability – only blind athletes may take part in judo, for example, while other sports, like swimming, are open to all athletes.

But the athletes who compete in the Games may have vastly differing disabilities. An amputee will have a different range of movement than say a person with cerebral palsy or dwarfism, and people with these conditions will have greater physical impairment than someone with partial blindness or a certain types of intellectual disability. Yet all may compete in swimming.

To level the playing fields, athletes undergo a process of classification, which ensures that those with similar degrees of disability compete against each other in each event. The classification process, which involves evaluation by authorised technical officials, is rigorous and ongoing – evaluations are done for before, after and during the competition.

The process determines which class of competition each athlete will partake in, and this may differ depending on the degree to which one's disability and range of motion affects performance in a particular event. Hypothetically, this means that the same athlete might compete against the fastest swimmers in the backstroke and against the slowest swimmers in the freestyle.

In addition an event like swimming will offer a ream of events – 148 events for swimming, compared to just 34 at the Olympics, allowing athletes with similar disabilities to compete against each other for gold.

The money gap
The gap between rich and poor countries is noticeable at the Olympics, with the world's major economies traditionally winning the most medals. This gap is even more pronounced at the Paralympics, as people with disabilities often require special equipment or training to compete in sports. In countries where national budgets are tight to begin with, funding for assistance to disabled people – whether it is for education, job creation or recreation – can be scant.

Cambodia, which has a vast number of amputees, has recently complained about the unfair playing fields their athletes face. Only one Cambodian athlete has qualified for the Games.

Thin Seng Hon, who was born without a fully formed right leg, told the AFP that she doubts she will win any medals – the prosthetic she wears is not designed for racing and is not as advanced as the expensive, specialised prosthetics her competitors use.

A lack of awareness about sports for the disabled and poor resourcing is a challenge, even in rich countries.

Christine Tinberg, founder of Bicycling Blind Los Angeles, a group that matches blind people with sighted riders on tandems told the Guardian that many of the blind students she tries to recruit into her bicycling group had never heard of the sport.

"They're like, 'Cycling blind, really? How does it work?'" she said.

Tinburg pointed out that bikes are expensive and simply unaffordable to most blind people, who are often unemployed.

Merging the games
As disabled athletes like Pistorius continue to make inroads in competition against able-bodied athletes, there has been speculation that the Paralympics and the Olympics may merge at some point in the future.

This has been welcomed by some disabled athletes, who fear that a merger may force organisers to reduce the number of events that are offered, have remained sceptical.

Benny Palime, advocacy manager for disability and mainstreaming in the department of women, children and people with disabilities, said that South Africa's 30 medals at the last Paralympics meant the country was doing something right.

He put this down to the "rights-based approach" towards people with disabilities in the country, praising local sporting bodies for their efforts to include people with disabilities, but adding that there is still room for improvement.

According to Palime, the main barrier for disabled people to sports and recreational activities is awareness of the opportunities that exist, particularly in rural areas.

Palime, who himself is visually impaired, also praised the determination of South Africa's Paralympians, many of whom had become disabled in accidents. "These people have had the determination [to succeed] in spite of their accidents. They rose to the occasion and made it to the top," he said.