x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The Paralympic athletes moving from battlefield to sports field

Maimed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a heroic group of athletes have a new battle to fight - winning gold at the London Paralympics.

Disabled powerlifter Mohammad Fahim Rahimi rests during training at a gym in Kabul.  He will be Afghanistan's only Paralympics athlete.
Disabled powerlifter Mohammad Fahim Rahimi rests during training at a gym in Kabul. He will be Afghanistan's only Paralympics athlete.

Two days ago, the Paralympic torch relay passed through the small Buckinghamshire village of Stoke Mandeville and the flames of the four torches that have been carried in relay across the UK were united there in a prelude to last night's opening ceremony.

It was a fitting choice given that Stoke Mandeville is where the Paralympic movement began.

Sixty-four years ago, as London hosted the 1948 Olympic Games, another sporting event was being played out 45 miles away to little fanfare and with no sense of how significant the movement of which it marked the beginning would prove.

The athletes consisted of 16 injured British servicemen and women. The only sporting pursuit was archery. The only kit they had was the military-issue jumpers and slacks in which they must have sweltered - the opening day, 29 July 1948, was notably hot and humid.

In so many obvious ways it is hard to imagine anything more distant from the vast event that got under way yesterday. Where the Stoke Mandeville Games were modest, everything about the Paralympic Games 2012 is a record: record ticket sales, record number of nations competing, record number of sporting disciplines. And record number of injured servicemen and women among the teams - so not so very far removed after all.

Perhaps it is all rather grimly inspirational, but the simple truth is that just as these Games were born in the shadow of the Second World War they have, in large part, blossomed with the medical techniques and awareness honed, and the sheer number of elite men and women wounded, on the battlefield in far more recent conflicts.

Five of the six military personnel who will represent their country for Team GB were wounded in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among them is 37-year-old Derek Derenalagi. Born in Fiji, Private Derenalagi still serves with the Mercian Regiment with whom he has an administrative role. It is five years since his Land Rover was hit by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. He lost both his legs, his heart stopped twice on the operating table and he was pronounced dead and en route to the morgue when doctors detected the faintest of pulses. Today he is a gold medal hope in the discus.

Sitting volleyball player Samantha Bowen, 36, was left with her right leg paralysed when she was hit by shrapnel in a mortar attack on the Iraq base at which she was stationed as a gunner with the Royal Artillery in 2006.

Jon-Allan Butterworth, 26, from Sutton Coldfield was a senior aircraftman weapons technician in the RAF when a rocket hit on Basra Air Station in 2007 led to the loss of his left arm. Two years later, when he decided he wanted to regain fitness, he discovered a natural ability for cycling. These are typical of the decidedly atypical tales behind so many of these Paralympians.

Twenty of the 227 strong US delegation are military servicemen and women. Many, like Kortney Clemons, 32, awarded the Purple Heart for service in the US 1st Cavalry Division and who lost a leg in Baghdad in 2005, owe their injuries and, paradoxically, their survival, to these same conflicts.

Clemons, who is part of the US track and field team, survived a blast that killed three of his comrades. That he did so was thanks to medical treatment developed in direct response to the injuries medics have witnessed in Afghanistan and Iraq - not least from roadside bombs known to them as IEDs.

David Richmond, Defence Recovery Officer at British charity Help for Heroes and head of Tedworth House which opened last July and is one of five personnel injury centres for the wounded, said: "There are guys surviving now who wouldn't have survived five or 10 years ago. Many of them are very, very young; most of them are between 18 and 26. The youngest under different circumstances would still be doing their A levels and something dreadful has happened to them."

For them, according to Mr Richmond: "Sport is a really good way of showing them they can still do it. You can see the lights go back on - there is a direct impact on those who do the sport, but the spin-off from the elite guys is the inspiration it offers to others. Self-confidence and self-esteem is rebuilt."

He could be echoing the words of the man credited with founding what became the Paralympic movement, Dutch-born neurologist Professor Sir Ludwig Guttmann. It was Sir Ludwig who established the National Spinal Injuries Unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital and Sir Ludwig who recognised that caring for the influx of young servicemen injured in the Second World War meant much more than fitting them out with prosthetic limbs, or putting them in a wheelchair and sending them, broken, back to lives that no longer existed.

Speaking in 1976, Sir Ludwig explained: "The result of a physical disaster is an effect on the soul. If the body is thrown into chaos the soul must follow.

"People develop severe psychological reactions. They lose the activity of their mind. They lose self-respect. They put themselves in enforced isolation.

"Sport restores activity of mind, sport restores self-confidence, dignity, comradeship and these four items make a person equal to any able-bodied person."

Some might argue that in the case of many of this year's Paralympians their experiences and their ability to overcome their physical and mental traumas mark them out as more than equal to many.

Certainly that would seem to be the case when it comes to 30-year old powerlifter, Mohammad Fahim Rahimi. He is Afghanistan's solitary Paralympian and a double amputee after losing both his legs to an explosion from a Soviet landmine when he was 12.

Where British, American and Canadian wounded have benefited from billions of dollars of investment in medical and rehabilitation facilities as well as the media campaigns and public support which flow in their wake, Rahimi has had no such resources to call upon.

The powerlifter who boasts he can lift the weight of two baby elephants trains in a rundown gym in Kabul and has expressed his hope that his presence at these Games will highlight the poverty and neglect experienced by many of Afghanistan's 2 million disabled.

Similarly only one Iraqi Paralympian is a former serviceman - shot put and discus thrower Hameed Abood Hassain, 50, was injured in the first Gulf War. In a sobering inclusion, two of his younger teammates, wheelchair fencer Amar Hadi Ali, 27, and table tennis player Saeed Moussa Ali, 44, were both civilian casualties of the conflicts that have raged in their homeland.

How many more young men and women from both these countries have suffered the physical and mental devastation of war without the panacea of programmes such as Britain's Battle Back Phoenix, or America's Warrior Games, an introduction to Paralympic sports for injured servicemen and women?

For Rahimi, Hassain and Amar and Saeed Ali their participation in these Games is as much a championing of the disabled population in their country as it is a pursuit of personal of glory. And what could be more apt? After all those were the sentiments and hopes with which it all began six decades ago.

 

lcollins@thenational.ae