African Paralympians Out to Change Perceptions About People With
By Chris Lenois
No doubt that one of the biggest stories from the 2012 Paralympic Games in London was Alan Oliveira of Brazil outracing South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius to a gold medal in the 200-meter race. Pistorius was the Paralympic’s most recognizable athlete, having just received international exposure for competing in the Olympic Games, so the news of his loss alone warranted front-page headlines in the world of sports.
Then came Pistorius’s post-race comments, which criticized the International Paralympic Committee of having unfair regulations with regards to blade length for competitors. Suddenly, the news had jumped off the sports page and into the more general conversation; perhaps proving that the Paralympics had, at the very least, achieved the same level of viewer curiosity as sports scandals involving the likes of Roger Clemens and Lance Armstrong.
Cheating spans all sports, after all. So the calculations of an athlete’s wingspan and ulna to determine a runner’s allowable blade length, as assiduously detailed by Slate’s executive editor Josh Levin, doesn’t do much to capture the public’s attention span until they are applied to a catchphrase like “racing tall” in the midst of a competition involving representative from 165 countries.
Pistorius gave an interview to Andy Bull of The Guardian a couple days before the Opening Ceremonies, in which he extolled Britain’s “enlightened approach” and spoke with excitement about the opportunity to seize the world’s attention, saying:
The audiences will take away a phenomenal experience, seeing inspirational sport, not focusing on the disability but focusing on the ability, and the triumphs and disappointments. I believe this Paralympic Games is going to change many people’s perceptions not just about Paralympic sport, but about people living with disabilities. It is going to completely change people’s mindsets. I am just so excited to see the impact this will leave around the world.
Meanwhile, two much lower-profile athletes from Pistorius’s native continent were hoping their participation in the Paralympics would have a similar impact in their home country of Ghana. In this London Telegraph column, wheelchair athlete Raphael Nkegbe Botsyo wrote that older generations of Africans view people with disabilities as a byproduct of bad karma for something they’ve done, or a “grandfather’s curse.” The nation’s flag-bearer says his country’s lack of financial support puts Ghanians at a competitive disadvantage.
“The truth is that disability can be more in your head than in your body. It is caused by a lack of education and information,” wrote Botsyo. Fortunately, he and his three teammates found a willing supporter in the privately funded “Right to Dream” program. Otherwise, the Ghanian athletes might have suffered the same disappointment as Malawi sprinters, Chisomo Jeremani and Janet Shedani, who had to withdraw from the games on the eve of the Opening Ceremonies due to budget cutbacks by the government.
Botsyo’s teammate Alem Mumuni is participating in his first Paralympics. The 29-year-old will be competing in several of the cycling road race events, and Peter Cossins’ preview inCycling News said he had a chance to become the Ghana’s first medalist ever. But Mumuni tells him he is after a bigger prize:
I do not feel like I’m doing something extraordinary. But I get the chance to shine my little light in the darkness. I am using the sport and my disability to show that human ability can overcome bodily limitations…In life there are obstacles and no one can make you who you want to be except you yourself. The background you come from can’t stop you from becoming the person you want to be in life.
Whether training as a world-class athlete or receiving career training for better a job, Mumuni closing words of wisdom to Cossins should be heeded by people with disabilities, as well as businesses that have contract service work or other job opportunities for people with disabilities, not only in Ghana or Africa, but worldwide.