Disabled Athletes Being Integrated
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ Spectators at the All Africa Games have cheered them on. They’ve broken records and collected medals and become the unexpected heroes and heroines of the continent’s biggest sporting event.
Crippled by polio, their limbs lost to accidents or in Africa’s wars, disabled athletes have been competing alongside able-bodied ones in Africa’s biggest sporting event _ the first time it’s been done on this scale anywhere in the world.
``The goodwill coming out of this exercise is far, far greater than what we anticipated,″ said Andy Scott, chief executive of the National Paralympic Committee of South Africa. ``I believe this is the start of things to come.″
Momentum to integrate disabled athletics into worldwide sports events is building.
After experimenting with it on a smaller scale at the 1994 Commonwealth Games and dropping it at the 1998 Games, the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester will hold disabled competitions in swimming, athletics, bowls, table tennis and weightlifting. Moreover, the medals will count just like any other.
``It’s a real breakthrough,″ said Mike Lockhart, executive director of the Commonwealth Games Federation.
Historically, competitions for able-bodied and disabled athletes have been held separately, as in the Olympics and the Paralympics, which are held at the same host city but weeks apart.
Integrating the two has met with resistance. At the 1994 Commonwealth Games, Australian team head Arthur Tunstall created a stir when he called disabled competitors ``an embarrassment.″
At the 7th All Africa Games, being played in Johannesburg, officials initially ruled disabled athletes would be denied medals, then said there would be no flag-raising or anthems played for the winners. A backlash resulted, with disabled athletes, who are competing in swimming and track-and-field events, accusing officials of discrimination. Winning athletes are now receiving medals, but _ unlike the 2002 Commonwealth Games _ they’re not counted in the national medals tables.
Meanwhile, thousands of spectators and able-bodied athletes are being exposed to the grit, courage and determination of disabled athletes like Andre Augusto. On June 27, 1987, Augusto, then serving in Angola’s army, was in a truck that hit a rebel land mine. Several soldiers died. Augusto lost his left arm.
On Thursday, Augusto walked up to the starting line of the men’s 100-meter at Johannesburg Stadium alongside eight other one-armed athletes. At the crack of a starting pistol, the men charged down the track. Spectators cheered the runners on, yelling as loudly as at any other event.
Augusto came in seventh in 12.27. But instead of registering loss, his face was aglow.
``This is great,″ he exclaimed. ``These spectators know we don’t have complete bodies, but now they’re seeing that we can compete _ that we’re not abnormal. That raises our morale.″
Kids in the stands sought autographs from disabled athletes. One proudly displayed on his shirt one from 100-meter wheelchair race gold medalist Aliu Adebayo of Nigeria.
Among those in action during the All Africa Games, which began Sept. 9 and end on Sunday:
_ Scott Field of South Africa, who set a 50-meter swimming world record in 25.54 seconds to a standing ovation. Field, who has only about 6 percent of normal vision, is wholeheartedly behind integration, noting that disabled events naturally attract more spectators than usual when held in conjunction with standard competitions.
_ Fanie Lombaard, a former South African rugby star who lost a leg in a rugby injury years ago and who won the gold in the javelin throw.
_ Edith Nzurike of Nigeria who, strapped into a chair, launched a javelin a world-record-breaking 24.89 meters.
_ Jose Felisberto, who, despite having lost an eye and both arms below the elbow at age seven in a grenade explosion in Angola, competed in the 100-meter freestyle swimming event.
Able-bodied athletes have watched their disabled counterparts with growing respect.
``I think they’re courageous,″ said Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe, a silver medalist in the 100-meter backstroke.