Ja's Paralympic talent pool untapped

BY PAUL A REID Observer writer

Sunday, September 16, 2012    

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I thought I had an idea what the Paralympics were all about when I left Jamaica in early July to cover three major sporting events.

The 14th Paralympics Games was to have been an 'add-on' to the IAAF World Junior Championships in Barcelona, Spain in early July and the 'real' Olympic Games in London not long after.

It is only after having had a first-hand view of the Paralympics that I can say I did not know enough. If I'm to be honest, I didn't even have a clue.

Now I know what real courage is all about; now I know what it means to defy the odds, despite physical and/or cerebral problems, some inherent, some later acquired through various means: accident, war, torture.

But how could I have known? I was one of the, no doubt, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of persons who had no idea how to relate to disabled persons.

Yes I felt pity for them and at times hurried past them on the streets on my way to conduct my 'able-bodied' business.

Now I feel ashamed because as I have come to learn — after spending time with the Jamaican team in their pre-Paralympics training camp in Bedford, England, and then watching a number of events at the Paralympics — that pity is the last thing they need.

Some persons — the children of a 'lesser god', so to speak, who for no fault of their own who were not born with two working arms and legs, or muscles that worked when you wanted them to or a brain that operated the way it was designed to, took the decisions they were not going to 'roll over and die' or feel sorry for themselves.

Sixty-four years ago when German-born British physician Dr Ludwig Guttmann, of the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in London, decided to put on what was sports day for disabled war veterans to coincide with the staging of the 1948 Olympics in London, he probably had no idea what he was spawning.

For sheer numbers of countries and athletes taking part, 4,200 athletes from 164 nations this year, the Paralympics are the second largest sporting event on the planet, only to the Olympic Games.

A week at the University of Bedfordshire training camp that Jamaica shared with about 11 other countries started my education on what the Paralympics were, but it took the full immersion at the Paralympics to really open my eyes.

The different rules for the various disabilities and the various classifications aside, it was the sheer power of the stories of each of the over 4,000 athletes and their drive to overcome any setbacks that got you.

If you were seeing it for the first time, how does the brain wrap itself around the fact that a swimmer with no hands is able to not only negotiate several laps of the 50m pool, but to swim fast enough to beat others as well; how do you explain former Italian Formula 1 star Alex Zenardi's transformation to a Paralympic hand-cycle racer after he was literally cut in two in a horrific accident on the track some years ago?

The stories are many and would fill a year's worth of newspapers, and thanks to the organisers who had a successful campaign in enlightening the public as to what the Games were all about, I came to realise how little I actually knew as there were so many stories, so many emotional moments from these 'super humans'.

While visiting the Excel Centre, the Olympic Stadium and Riverbank Stadium to watch as many events as I could, then the almost 24 hours television coverage, I found myself thinking about the disabled persons I know and how getting involved in sports could help change their lives.

Wrong or right, now when I see a disabled person my first though is what classification they would fit in.

The sad fact is that unlike England and other developed countries, Jamaica, for the most part, is not a 'disabled friendly' place to live or operate.

As Toni Greaves, one member of the Jamaican team pointed out, while some disabled persons can find employment, it is not easy for those like her who are wheelchair-bound.

She does have one advantage, however, and that is that she owns a customised car she drives with her hands so she does not have the complications like others who have to use the public transport system.

Jamaica does have a vastly untapped pool of talent in the Paralympic and disabled sports and like any other sporting event, it will take lots of, dilligence, skill and most of all, money to unearth and develop them.

But who knows? Maybe come 2016 in Rio at the next Paralympic Games we will be represented in more than just the javelin and discus events.

Too many persons who watched the event could not believe that Jamaica, the sprint factory of the world, did not have a single sprinter at the Paralympics. Hopefully, in four years time that, too, will be corrected.





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