Two Storylines from the London 2012 Paralympics

The 2012 London Paralympics, “the most successful Paralympic Games… thanks to a record-smashing advance sale of more than 2.4m tickets,” have just concluded (The Guardian).  The host nation emphasized ability over disability and the coverage locally appears to have been as complete for the Paralympics as for the Olympics (for example, Arctic Monkeys and Paul McCartney sang at the Olympic closing ceremony; Coldplay and Rihanna at the Paralympic).  Despite the near total absence of any mention of the Paralympics in the United States (Huffington Post), what caught my eye were two other storylines, the high cost of participation in Paralympic events and the different treatment of athletes by their homelands.


The Cost

Prosthetic devices often represent a significant barrier to amputees and landmine victims.  For many, the most basic artificial limbs that would enable a person to walk are prohibitively expensive.  Thus the many attempts documented previously in this blog to invent low-cost, durable prosthetic devices.  The barriers to participation in disability sports are even higher.

Oscar Pistorius has made Ossur’s Cheetah Flex-foot famous, but he can’t make it affordable.  At a cost of US $25,000 to $30,000 for construction and fitting (The Guardian; Challenged Athletes Foundation), the Cheetah foot represents the average annual income in Spain, and six times the average in Angola (World Bank).  Dedeline Mibamba Kimbata, the landmine survivor from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who participated in the discus throw and the 100M wheelchair race, could only participate in the games thanks to a donation of a racing chair from a fellow Paralympian (The Guardian).  Racing wheelchairs typically cost upwards of US $5,000 and while the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) has sponsored the development of lower cost chairs for racing, tennis and basketball, the minimum entry cost is still about US $1,000 (The Guardian; Motivation).  The lower cost chairs are an improvement and will allow more people to participate, but $1,000 is still four times the average annual income of someone in the DRC (World Bank). There should also be some concern as to whether or not athletes using lower cost equipment would be at a disadvantage to racers with access to top-of-the-line chairs and prosthetics. 

More will need to be done to make future Paralympic games accessible to all.  At the national level, the sports committees will need to continue to work to overcome discrimination and prejudice against persons with disabilities while providing the space and equipment for people to participate.  Otherwise the trend witnessed again in London, where the Paralympic athletes from poorer countries are restricted to certain events and classification, e.g., twelve of the thirteen Kenyan participants were blind or partially-sighted runners, will continue because the costs of participation in such events are lower (The Guardian).   Events requiring equipment, like the increasing popular wheelchair rugby, or “Murderball,” will remain the province of wealthier countries.


Heroes and Villains

Two Paralympians and landmine survivors, Angola’s José Armando Sayovo and DRC’s Dedeline Mibamba Kimbata, demonstrate the highly politicized nature of international sport.  Savoyo is a national hero, “the pride of the nation” according to Angolan Vice President, Fernando da Piedade Dias dos Santos (BP London 2012).  Kimbata sought asylum in Great Britain after the end of the Paralympic games for fear of being branded a “traitor” (The Guardian). 

Savoyo served as a sergeant in the Angolan army and was blinded by a landmine during the war against the UNITA rebels.  After his injury, he took up running and has won Paralympic medals at the Athens, Beijing and London games, representing his country.  Kimbata was injured crossing the border between Angola and DRC and lives in a region of DRC that heavily favors the opposition to the ruling Kabila regime.  Even though she nominally represented her country at the Paralympics, her participation in the games was made possible by the IPC and not the Congolese Paralympic Committee.  Kimbata has received little or no support from the government in her recovery (how much support Savoyo received is not clear but as an army veteran, I would assume he received better treatment than Kimbata), and has criticized the Congolege Paralympic Committee, the Kabila government and said she has seen “neighbors shot dead by government forces on election day.” 

In the end, Savoyo will return home to Angola this week to a hero’s welcome.  Kimbata will likely never return home, but she was not made to feel welcome there before she left for the Paralympics.  As one of her teammates said, “In Congo, I have attended demonstrations against the government but it is hard to publicly criticise Kabila when I am in my country. In London, we are free to speak.”  Hopefully she will find a new home where she is welcome.


Michael P. Moore, September 12, 2012