Intellectual disability sports return to Paralympics
PARIS - Agence France-Presse
A Paralympic Games symbol hangs from Tower Bridge. The London 2012 Paralympic Games starts on Wednesday.Athletes with intellectual disabilities are competing at the Paralympics for the first time in 12 years, after an embarrassing scandal involving Spain’s basketball team.
Three sports at the Games in the British capital are open to intellectual disability (ID) athletes -- athletics, swimming and table tennis -- following the introduction of stricter criteria for participation.
The categories were dropped for the last two Games in Athens and Beijing after 10 members of the gold-winning Spanish basketball team in Sydney in 2000 were told to hand back their medals because several players had no intellectual disability.
A journalist who played for the side claimed afterwards that “at least 15 of the 200-strong Spanish (Paralympics) team had no physical or mental handicap” and that many participating countries had also selected non-disabled athletes.
The president of the International Paralympic Committee, Philip Green, said he was satisfied with new eligibility criteria drawn up by the International Sports Federation for Persons with Intellectual Disability (INAS-FID) to prevent a repeat.
“It’s already been used in a number of competitions and I have confidence in that system,” he told AFP in a recent interview.
The re-introduction is a boost for ID athletes and the federations that represent them, who have struggled to gain as much recognition -- and funding -- as other para-sports.
“Without the (Paralympic) Games, there’s nothing, no high-level recognition,” said Marc Truffaut, vice-president of the French Federation for Disability Sport (FFSA) and trainer of French long-jump medal hope Daniel Royer.
Of the 4,200 athletes expected at the Games, there will be some 200 ID athletes.
Pascal Pereira-Leal, the current world number one in the classification at table tennis, is one.
The 29-year-old says he has lived with a “psychological illness” since he was a teenager but according to his coach, Yves Drapeau, his passion for table tennis “has been the solution”.
After a number of difficult years, including hospital stays, Pereira-Leal said he returned to his favourite sport, which during competition makes him forget his illness.
Competing at the London Paralympics is “a recognition, a dream”, he said, his eyes sparkling.
More so than in any sport, what characterises ID athletes is determination, say their coaches, who are particularly proud of their proteges.
“He’s a fighter,” said Drapeau of Pereira-Leal.
“She’s extraordinary. She amazes me. She’s determined,” added Bertrand Sebire, who trains swimmer Alicia Mandin, 23, the 2007 50m breaststroke world champion, who has won a string of other titles.
Adaptation, however, is key, the coaches say. Some athletes have difficulty understanding instructions or replicating movements.
“You have to be with them and re-explain,” said Truffaut.
Like Pereira-Leal, Mandin, who has epilepsy and dyslexia, said swimming is a form of escape.
“You get rid of the anger,” she added.
Sport has also helped change her character, from a painfully shy teenager lacking self-confidence to someone who now talks easily, said Sebire, who has coached the swimmer for nine years.
“She’s seen that she could be a champion,” he added.
According to Drapeau, the goal in London for these athletes is not simply to make up the numbers.
They are going “to win, not just to take part”, he added.
Despite the return of the categories, the director-general of the French Paralympic and Sporting Committee (CPSF) Gilles Johannet is disappointed that there are only 200 places for ID athletes.
“It’s not really serious to just have six competitors per sport,” he added.