789 days to go

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 June, 2006, 12:00am

On the eastern outskirts of Beijing there is another of the ubiquitous large holes in the ground filled with dusty labourers in yellow hats, cranes and diggers and pile drivers.

From it comes the characteristic, perpetual clang-clang-clang of modernity in the making - a deafening noise that has become the signature anthem of the 'emerging giant' - mainland China.

Here in Shunyi - like elsewhere throughout the capital and the country - cement trucks are queuing, their engines idling and rumbling with an air of impatience as they wait to pour their load on to another Olympic construction. This site is unique. This is, according to the bumph, the first, biggest and best sports training complex being built for disabled people in China. From this hole in the ground will materialise six gymnasiums, an apartment complex and an office building.

This 24-hectare site, which is to cost 500 million yuan and open next year, will serve as the base from which Chinese paralympics athletes will attempt to rein supreme - as they did in Athens - during the 2008 Paralympics Games, the competition for people with physical disabilities.

It will, post-games, become an open public space.

I, like many, have come to view this construction site as a beacon of hope for the officially estimated 60 million disabled citizens of China.

The Olympics in 2008, trumpet the authorities, will change the lives of thousands of millions of Chinese.

From a layman's view, the games are a grand and honorable excuse to plough billions of dollars into much needed improvements to transport infrastructures, urban living, the environment, to raise awareness, address social ills, gain respect and show off 'New China' to the world.

It will, with no expense spared, undoubtedly be an international celebration of sports and of the human spirit. And the Olympics will, in Beijing at least, improve the lot of the capital's disabled community beyond their wildest imaginations.

This week, the Beijing Organising Committee for the Games (Bocog), unveiled its 'Beijing 2008 Paralympics Marketing Programme'.

Yuan Bin, director of the marketing department, outlined how sponsors could buy marketing rights, and the procedure for 'enterprises seeking to back the Chinese Paralympics Committee or Chinese team'.

More significant were the words of Bocog president Liu Qi. 'A successful Paralympics in Beijing will further promote disabled persons' cause in Beijing as well as throughout China,' he said. The Paralympics would draw the nation's attention to the difficulties faced by disabled people.

'The games will urge the whole of society to pay more attention to their cause. It will reinforce the importance of building accessible installations for the disabled and thus enhance efforts to construct a harmonious society,' said Liu.

Hong Kong will have a strong delegation of athletes at the games, including 23-year-old Chan Yui-chong, a female wheelchair fencer, who won three gold and one silver medal at the 2004 Paralympic Games, and Lau Yan-chi, 21, a male boccia player, who won gold in Athens.

Alison Wong Siu-king, of the Hong Kong Paralympic Committee and Sports Association for the Physically Disabled, said: 'The Paralympics will showcase to the world how disabled people can be so capable in the sporting arena. It can, to a certain extent, change the public's perception of disabled people'.

For many disabled citizens, the preparations and success of the Paralympics, which take place directly after the main event, will be the ultimate litmus test for the scope of the games' legacy. It's hard to imagine the deep-rooted prejudices the disabled face in their every day lives. In progressive Beijing, one can only assume job prospects are better, society is more open and accommodating.

Whether the games can sweep away imbedded prejudices remains to be seen. They do, however, promise by 2008 to make the capital - where disabled people are conspicuous by their absence - more disabled-friendly.

Sun Ying, a sociologist at the China Youth College for Political Sciences in Beijing, fears the Paralympics will fall short of its aim to raise awareness and force improvements.

'What our society has done for disabled people is far from enough. Basic life requirements have not been met yet. Life is comparatively easier for blind people, but it is still very difficult for the people in wheelchairs to go out.'

He said the government needed to 'actively do more' rather than rely on the Olympics. 'The disabled have very few opportunities for employment. Companies were told to employ disabled workers but many have failed to fulfil their social responsibility in their pursuit of productivity. Some even refuse to employ disabled people.'

In 2006, for the disabled to venture out is a heart-thumping nightmare full of frustration and danger. Granted, most public housing complexes have wheelchair ramps given that many residents are elderly. But hit the streets and you're on your own.

Pushing my 16-month-old son in his pram through the streets of Beijing for the past year or so, I have experienced first hand the challenges many Chinese people with physical disabilities face each time they leave their homes. I often have to stray off the path and on to the road to dodge a vehicle in our way. At the shops, I have to pick up baby, shopping and pram in my arms and gingerly take on the steep steps. I carry this load down the steps of pedestrian subways and overhead walkways, up escalators, into the foyers of banks, post offices, hotels, malls, restaurants and on to buses.

Beijing is proud of its unique pavements that have slats with raised bumps running the entire length. This enables the blind to navigate with their walking aid. Alas, such pavements end without warning, or are potholed, or dug up, or act as ad hoc car parks.

But the Paralympics promises widespread change. The 'Beijing 2006 non-obstacle facilities construction and innovation plan' was also released this week. It reads like a mandate from heaven for disabled citizens.

'Before the end of 2007 ... to complete the non-obstacle facilities construction and innovation of Olympic venues, its surrounding areas: public transportation, tourism venues, middle and big shopping malls, supermarkets, hospitals, post offices, schools, parks, airports, train stations, and the reception of executive departments and judiciary departments.'

This wish list will be paid for out of the estimated US$820 million needed to stage the '13th Paralympics', says Bocog. This huge cash injection will ensure the Beijing Paralympics will be the first ever to provide free board and lodging and transportation for athletes and their coaches.

The event, which will be held at 18 venues in Beijing, Qingdao and Hong Kong, will be attended by 4,000 athletes and 2,500 coaches and officials from 150 countries. Each will have the unique opportunity to help champion 60 million disabled Chinese and an unknown number of pram-pushers.