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Two classes at the Paralympics
Athletes like the amputated runner Thin Seng Hong from Cambodia cannot afford expensive protheses and wheelchairs. More support is needed for disabled athletes, 80 percent of whom live in developing countries.
Her hands folded on her back, standing in stooped posture, and talking in a soft voice, Thin Seng Hong looks a bit like a party guest who's imagined the event a bit differently. "I'm impressed, it's a great experience," the petite woman says quietly. Her smile looks a bit forced, her words don't seem to fit her body language. Thin Seng Hong is standing in the interview zone of the Olympic stadium, buzzing spectators all around her. To her right, a Dutch runner with protheses hugs her coach with a scream of joy, and on her left, a Japanese athlete in a wheelchair is giving an interview to a dozen journalists.
Thin Seng Hong looks lost. She has lost her right lower leg. She comes from Cambodia, where the percentage of amputated people is the highest in the world, due to the many landmines. Although the Cambodian team could be large, Thin Seng Hong is the only Cambodian athlete in London.
The stars of the 14th Summer Paralympics are Oscar Pistorius or Alessandro Zanardi. They are talented and practice hard, and they also have high-tech equipment: The pair of protheses which make South African Pistorius run so fast cost 20,000 euro. The featherlight handbike that helped former formula one racer Alessandro Zanardi win his time trial gold medal sells for 6,000 euros.
Both athletes are the peak of a Paralympic elite: 40 percent of the 4,200 participants are from just nine rich countries. Altogether, 165 nations are represented. The Paralympics don't reflect reality, since according to the World Health Organization, or WHO, out of a billion people with disabilities, 80 percent live in developing countries.
Like runner Thin Seng Hong. In 2005 she started doing competitive sports, but she soon had to stop, since she could not gain any support. People with disabilities suffer exclusion and discrimination in Cambodia and dozens of other countries. Friends of Thin Seng Hong collected donations and bought a prothesis for her for some 2,000 euros. That sum is peanuts for athletes like Oscar Pistorius or Alessandro Zanardi - yet it equals three annual salaries for Thin Seng Hong, who dreams of opening a souvenir stall in Cambodia. "With a better prothesis I would have run faster," the 29-year-old said. She dropped out in the preliminary rounds of the 100 and 200 meter races. Still, she calls her prothesis her lucky leg.
The Paralympics represent a two-class society, thought the differences are becoming smaller. In 1988 only 61 countries were present at the games in Seoul, while in London, it's almost three times more. Some 16 nations sent athletes for the first time. And there could have been more: Athletes from Malawi and Botswana had to cancel their trips shortly before the opening ceremony, because according to the British paper The Guardian, they had not been able to find enough sponsors.
"It's one of our most important goals, to widen the paralympic movement," said Philip Craven, president of the International Paralymic Committee (IPC). He added that this would enhance the levels at the competitions, as well as improving the image of people with disabilities in poor countries.
Like the International Olympic Committe (IOC), the IPC also distributes wildcards to athletes from emerging eceonomies and developing countries who were not able to qualify for the Paralympics through contentional qualifications. One of these 61 special permits for 50 countries went to Thin Seng Hong. Her story is supposed to inspire Cambodians who are handicapped because of the civil war. However, Thin Seng Hong's races were not shown on TV, and no Cambodian journalists traveled to London.
The IPC received thousands of requests for wildcards, but it has far less money than to the IOC. In earlier interviews, Thin Seng Hong demanded a stronger focus on developing countries, but she was not prepared to repeat these arguments in London. Did the IPC request athletes to refrain from criticism? Or did the Cambodian government intervene?
The IPC is dependent on partners, for instance the organization "Motivation." This organization has developed materials for cheap wheelchairs used for tennis and basketball, and distributes them at a cost of just 550 euros instead of 5000 euros. At current, some 4,000 of these wheelchairs are being used in 50 countries.
Rüdiger Herzog, who works for the Duderstadt-based Otto Bock company in Northern Germany, elaborated on the problem. "Many teams cannot afford technicians for the Paralympics, their equipment is old and broken," Herzog said. The company is a world leader in prothetics and organizes the technical workshop at the Paralympics. In London, there are 80 technicians providing 14 tons of equipment and some 15,000 spare parts. But these figures don't mean much to most athletes at the Paralympics. Out of the 13 athletes from Kenya, for instance, only one is dependent on his wheelchair.
The IPC has been strenghening education projects: Administrations, teachers and coaches are being made more aware of the value of disabled sports. Now, 15 percent of people in the world have some kind of impediment - given the ongoing wars and conflicts, that figure is likely to increase. Still, only between 2 and 3 percent of disabled children attend school. In Cambodia for instance, there are hardly any disabled-accessible playgrounds or gyms.
Yet Thin Seng Hong hopes that she will not bet he only athlete from her country to travel to the next Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She would love to run again in the same stadium with the millionaire posterboy Oscar Pistorius. Even though they are still worlds apart.
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