Paralympics put disabled on track to success

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 October, 2007, 12:00am

Wang Juan walks smoothly into a cafe looking every inch the athlete in her black T-shirt and blue jeans. The 32-year-old is powerfully built and tanned, and it's no stretch to imagine her competing with success in international competition.

She is in the middle of an intensive training programme with next summer in mind, for Wang is a paralympian, and her big event is the Paralympics, which will start on September 12, following the able-bodied Olympics.

Wang, a Beijinger, lost her right leg 19 years ago to a car accident. She was only 13, and a member of her school's athletics team. Shortly after the mishap, her leg was amputated and she was fitted with an artificial limb.

Wang's disability did not end her sporting career. Five years later, she joined the national disabled fencing team as China hosted the Far East and South Pacific Games (Fespic Games) in 1994.

'Because the country was hosting the Games, it was essential we had teams in every event, so a fencing team was formed and I joined.'

Wang readily admits the results were unimpressive. She quit fencing two years later and returned to her first love: track and field.

Since then, she has concentrated on 100-, 200- and 400-metre sprints and the long jump. She took home championships in the sprint events at China's Fifth National Games for the Disabled in 2000, breaking world records along the way.

She has competed in three Fespic Games and was the 100-metre champion at the 2002 World Championship. In the Sydney Paralympics in 2000, she won bronze in both the 100 metres and long jump. Four years later in Athens, she took silver in the long jump.

Wang's outstanding achievements have made her the first physically disabled student to enter university under the state's recommendation.

Her day job is at the Municipal China Disabled People's Federation, but she will be taking plenty of time off to train for her home-town games, which will be her last hurrah. She plans to retire afterwards.

China has a distinguished record at the Paralympics and topped the medal table in Athens in 2004.

Silas Cheung of the Hong Kong Sports Association for Physically Disabled credits government support for the mainland's success.

'Their athletes enjoy tremendous support from the government,' Cheung says. 'Beijing fully supports sports development for the physically disabled, ranging from facilities to cash allowances. They are full-time professional athletes while most of their competitors - including those in the developed economies - are part-time athletes. So mainland athletes can focus fully on training.'

All this government support comes with a price tag, Cheung believes. Mainland athletes are expected to win and the psychological pressure is huge.

Another problem is the quality of essential equipment such as wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs. Cheung says mainland manufacturers have always lagged behind their international rivals, particularly those in Europe, in making wheelchairs and artificial limbs which are strong, flexible and comfortable enough to withstand the stresses of top-class competition.

Prejudice is another hurdle. Despite mainland successes at disabled games, there remain public prejudices against the physically disabled which organisers hope the Paralympics will help dispel.

That is also Wang's wish. There has never been any time for self-pity, she says. She remains unrelentingly positive and does not feel deprived.

'Since the day I had my first artificial leg, I have treated it as part of my body,' she says. 'I am a happy person. Of course, there were countless difficulties but I don't blame them on the fact I lost a leg. Problems and hardships hit everyone, whether you're physically able or not. You can't escape.

'I think when I lost my leg, I was too young to understand and worry about the consequences. My only complaint back then was I couldn't walk normally and I couldn't run. Because I loved sports, I decided to put on an artificial leg a year after the accident.'

Wang cannot recall how many artificial legs she has gone through in the past 19 years but the number is high. Her early everyday limbs were manufactured in Beijing and she was happy with them. But it was always a problem looking for limbs suitable for athletic competition. She was forced to use conventional 'walking' legs which were unsuitable.

'I loved sports so much that I used walking legs to run and jump. What happened was the legs fell off frequently. If it dropped during a competition, I had to stop and put it on. I had to use a long string to tie it to my body.'

When she came to national prominence, state sponsorship allowed her to use equipment designed and manufactured by international companies.

Now she has three pairs of artificial limbs, one for walking and one each for running and for the long jump. Putting on an artificial leg is as quick and simple as a pair of shoes, she says.

As an elite athlete, Wang benefits from state support.

But the top-grade artificial limbs - which resemble real skin closely and are comfortable and flexible - cost several thousand US dollars and are out of the reach of ordinary mainlanders.

However, help is coming from an unexpected source: Iceland. The Chinese Disabled Persons Federation is working with an Icelandic company to produce inexpensive and high-quality artificial limbs for the mainland market.

The company, Ossur, has about 20 per cent of the world's artificial limbs market and was named by the World Economic Forum as a technology pioneer for 2006. The firm helped train mainland athletes for the Athens Paralympics.

It has set up an office and research and development centre in Shanghai, tasked with designing products of a shape and size suitable for Asian users.

For Wang, if there is anything missing, it is an artificial leg she can wear with high heels. She plans to buy one after the Paralympics.