Forging a united movement
For the sporting officials and organisers who have toiled to get the Paralympics internationally recognised as something more than a fringe event for a tiny minority, it's been a long, hard slog. 'Rather like running a marathon over uneven ground in a wheelchair,' smiles Dr York Chow Yat-ngok. The chief executive of the Hospital Authority's institutions on Hong Kong West centred on Queen Mary Hospital, Dr Chow has been a key figure in sports for the disabled for 23 years.
It's noticeable worldwide, and especially in Hong Kong, there are a disproportionate number of doctors and other medical professionals involved with organisations like the Sports Association for the Physically Disabled. The reason is simple. Doctors, occupational and physical therapists and other medical specialists realise a hobby or healthy interest in sports is a major aid in rehabilitation.
If a person becomes a paraplegic after an accident or work injury, their entire life changes. To focus on a tough competitive sport, like fencing, for example, toughens the body and disciplines the mind.
These were some of the reasons Dr Chow became involved with sports for the disabled in 1981. Since then, he's come to be an admirer of the determination that drives so many of those suffering crippling handicaps.
That feeling is mutual; the team in Athens today realises the commitments made by the officials accompanying them. Dr Chow, vice-president of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), is also chairman of its development wing. He holds many other voluntary positions in local and regional bodies and was a special adviser to the 2008 Beijing Games bid committee.
Elected to the executive committee of the IPC when it was formed in 1989, Dr Chow helped forge the body by uniting six different sports federations, each governing a specific disability discipline. The first job of the new body was to achieve recognition. To do this, it had to persuade cities organising the Olympics also to host the Paralympic Games.
This happened first in Seoul in 1988. Once the ice was broken, other cities followed that example - Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney and Athens - all saw games for the disabled follow the regular Games. The same applies to Winter Olympics; disabled sportsmen will be competing at the 2006 Games in Turin.
Another major step was in 1999, setting up international headquarters for the IPC in Bonn with professional staff to manage the Paralympics and to support disabled sports groups worldwide.
In 2000, came the ultimate recognition; the International Olympic Committee agreed to include the Paralympic Games in every Olympic Games contract. The first of these combined Olympic Games and Paralympic Games is Beijing 2008.
It has been a long, hard road since Sir Harry Fang, the father of scientific medical rehabilitation in Hong Kong, set up the Sports Association for the Physically Disabled in 1972. The body had one staff member; Silas Chiang is still a volunteer with the Association and is chef de mission with the team in Athens.
Some of the star disabled athletes of the early years, such as former fencing ace Lau Sik and athlete Choi Hei-fung, remain active volunteer coaches.
The bond with medicine was very strong in the formative years and remains durable today. 'We actively recruited potential athletes from hospitals, rehabilitation centres, especially the Margaret Trench Rehabilitation Centre in Kwun Tong, and from special schools,' Dr Chow recalls. 'As we built up strength in the 1970s and early '80s, we had more participants so we could form basketball teams and take part in early Paralympics, which were small-scale competitions.
'We went to the Stoke Mandeville Games in Britain, which were the holy grail for sportsmen with disabilities. Until 1988, they were by far the largest and most prestigious games for us. We had a huge boost when Hong Kong hosted the Far East and South Pacific Games in 1982 at the Sha Tin Sports Institute, which had just opened. We got funding, with great difficulty, and professional staff. We structured development and hired coaches, became actively involved with international federations,' Dr Chow said.
'We identified a number of niche sports in which our athletes could compete, like table tennis, archery, shooting, wheelchair fencing and lawn bowls. We also started to develop sports for the cerebral palsied and later introduced boccia as a target sport for the severely disabled. Financially, it was a struggle. Getting enough money to get the team to the 1986 Fespic Games in Solo, Indonesia, was particularly tough.'
Dr Chow takes the unusual step, for a doctor, in publicly acknowledging money given by a tobacco company. Philip Morris gave support without any advertising or publicity pay-back and he is grateful. Pavarotti sang and the donations poured in.
Creation of the Sports Development Board was like a gift from the gods. The board considered sports for athletes with disabilities almost equal to the able-bodied.
'With that stability, we expanded, hunting for talent and training elite athletes at the Hong Kong Sports Institute with professional sports science support,' Dr Chow said. 'We soon saw results. Performances got better. Medal tallies went up dramatically, harvests which we traced back to sports development strategies we planned and implemented in the 1980s.
'That proud record was recognised by government; the $50 million Hong Kong Paralympians' Fund, managed by the Social Welfare Department, is a major aid and encouragement to committed disabled sportsmen.'