Caster Semenya of South Africa in action. REUTERS
Caster Semenya of South Africa in action. REUTERS

Valued and included, Para integration a big hit on Gold Coast

GOLD COAST, Australia  – The beaming smile on the face of James Arnott said everything about what winning an athletics medal at the XXI Commonwealth Games meant to him.

On a balmy Friday evening, 35,000 fans had packed into the Carrara Stadium to watch Caster Semenya seal the middle distance double and New Zealander Valerie Adams attempt to win a fourth successive shot put gold.

Tucked into the programme between the 3,000 metres steeplechase and the heptathlon 800 metres heats was Arnott’s 100 metres sprint.

As the crowd roared their support, the Englishman made a great start out of his blocks only for Nigeria’s Suwaibidu Galadima to storm past him with a blistering finish to claim gold.

“All of a sudden I saw the guy to my left come through and I was a bit like ‘woah’,” Arnott told Reuters.

“But I held my form and I came away with a silver medal so I’m really happy.”

Later, Arnott was awarded an identical silver medal to the one Adams received, on the same podium where Semenya stood to receive her 800m gold medal.

While Adams and Semenya’s next multi-sports Games will be the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, though, the goal on the horizon for Arnott is the Paralympics Games that follow.

This is the Commonwealth Games, where Paralympic athletes are not just included but fully integrated in the teams, and their events in the programme.

Usain Bolt last week described it as “brilliant” and Arnott, who was born with a condition called Erb’s palsy which restricts the movement of his left shoulder and impacts on his ability to sprint, would not disagree with the Jamaican great.

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“It’s just amazing to the see the able-bodied and the paras coming together, we’ve all become friends, it’s just been one big team-bonding experience,” he said.

“I’ve been exchanging tips with the able-bodied sprinters. Them to me, me to them as much as I can,” he added with a laugh. “It’s just been one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.”

Commonwealth Games Federation chief executive David Grevemberg believes the full integration is essential if the Games are to reflect the mission of the movement.

“Truly if we want a Games that is representative of all the people across the Commonwealth, then our athletes need to be truly representative,” said the American, a former senior executive at the International Paralympic Committee (IPC).

“If you value people, you include them, it’s that simple. But it also needs to be legitimate sport and I think the performances here speak for themselves.”

NO OLYMPIC INTEGRATION

From a handful of exhibition wheelchair races in Victoria in 1994, the Paralympic element of the Commonwealth Games has grown to 38 medals in seven sports on the Gold Coast.

However, quite apart from the impracticality of merging two already huge events, there appears little enthusiasm among Para-athletes for emulating the process at the Olympic Games.

“We don’t really want to be integrated, we’re Paralympians and they’re Olympians,” said Kelly Cartwright, an amputee who won long jump gold at the 2012 Paralympics and competed in the power-lifting on the Gold Coast.

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“We have a disability, we are different but we are athletes. I think the Paralympics represents that. We just need to boost the profile of the Paralympics and get that showcased around the world a bit more.”

The support for Para-athletes from the Gold Coast crowds has been vocal and wheelchair-bound local Kurt Fearnley said the backing he received winning silver in the wheelchair 1,500m “almost blew my head off”.

The veteran, who brought the curtain down on his career with a marathon gold on Sunday, was hopeful that the raised profile of the Para-athletes could also open a broader discussion about disability in Australian society.

“Let’s have this conversation on a greater level and let’s make sure we can do something positive for what’s happening right here,” Fearnley said.

“It’s working, it’s good, it’s the right thing to do. Now let’s use it as a pivotal moment. Tomorrow morning have that yarn wherever you are.”

A few nights later, Arnott described the whole experience of racing amputee Galadima and winning a medal in the T47 100m as “surreal” and said he was looking forward to a few more days hanging out as a proud member of the England team.

“It’s just fantastic, you get to come across the other side of the world,” grinned the 21-year-old.

“And it’s all for the sport.”(Reuters)

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