Sport the new battleground for injured war veterans

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 September, 2008, 12:00am

The first sports tournament for disabled athletes was initiated in London in 1948 as a rehabilitation programme for second world war soldiers with spinal injuries. Sixty years on, competition for excellence might have overridden rehabilitation at the Beijing Paralympics, but the scars of wars were still poignant.

US Army First Lieutenant Melissa Stockwell was leading a supply convoy through Baghdad on April 13, 2004, when a roadside bomb struck her Humvee. As a result her left leg had to be amputated above the knee.

Last week she came fourth in her heat of the women's 400m freestyle S9 class. She didn't make it to the podium and she didn't even beat her personal best time of five minutes and 3.08 seconds, the American record she set in June. At two other events, the 100m freestyle and 100m butterfly, she only came sixth and fifth.

But her gentle smile and perseverance moved many - she was elected the flag-bearer of the US paralympic team for the closing ceremony.

'I've come so far to make it here in the first place and to wear the USA jacket. Four months ago, my only goal was to get here and now that I am here, I wanted to have good races, so I'm a little disappointed,' said the 28-year-old swimmer, who dreamt of entering the Olympics as a gymnast when she was a little girl.

'[But] four years ago, I lost my leg. So to be standing here, without my leg, with really amazing swimmers from around the world, I couldn't be happier. I have some pretty fast competition out there so I will go back home and train harder.'

Stockwell and her teammate, shot putter Scott Winkler, 35, are the first veterans of the Iraq war to participate in the Paralympics. Army cook Winkler was left paralysed from the chest down after a case of ammunition accidentally fell on him when he was unloading a truck north of Baghdad in 2003. He threw the fifth furthest distance in the finals.

Sixteen out of 216 athletes on the US Paralympic team were former military personnel but only Stockwell and Winkler were active combatants in the Iraq war. US Olympic Committee officials hope that the Iraq war will provide up to 10 to 15 per cent of US Paralympians in 2012.

Since 2004, the USOC has set up clinics and training camps around the country for disabled veterans who are interested in participating in the Paralympics. Through this outreach programme wounded soldiers can enjoy free room and board, coaching and support services as they embrace their new identity as athletes.

Britain followed suit last year by launching a new initiative where the British Paralympic Association will actively recruit and retrain soldiers returning from the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan for the 2012 Games in London. The initiative is meant to boost Team GB's medal haul in their 'homecoming' Games, and also to prevent wounded soldiers from being socially excluded - up to 7,000 British soldiers are estimated to have been injured in the Iraq conflict.

The sad irony of this new pool of talent for the Paralympics was not lost on anybody, though no one voiced regrets.

'I do not feel bad for myself. I have done more with one leg than I would have ever done with two,' said Stockwell. 'You go to Iraq and defend your country in a uniform. Here in Beijing I'm also serving my country, just in a different uniform.'

Meanwhile, after a last-minute reversal of an IOC ban on Iraq's participation in this years' Games, Iraqi veterans were also trying to impress the world with more than 20 athletes participating in a range of events from athletics and powerlifting to sitting volleyball.

Last Saturday the sitting volleyball team was playing its last game in Beijing. Having lost all four previous matches the team had not given up in their final match against Japan. Iraqi fans - greatly outnumbered by their Japanese counterparts - helped their team pull off a straight-sets victory.

With more than half the team over 40, what they lacked in physical strength they hoped to make up with experience. Money was not the biggest obstacle to recruiting younger players. Poor security and lack of facilities - most were bombed, or were in danger of being bombed - hindered sports development, said the Iraqi Paralympic Committee president, Qahtan al-Nuaimi.

The team members detested the US occupation, as much as they hated Saddam Hussein's regime. But they said they had no problem playing against the Americans. 'It's not the people we don't like,' several team members said in sync.

Fifty-two-year-old captain Saeed al-Mimar said he was disappointed at the team's results as they were hoping to reach the top four, having made it to fifth spot at a world championship.

He lost his right leg in 1987 in the war with Iran, after already being wounded twice in his seven years of service.

'When I discovered I lost my leg, I was very sad and I thought life was over,' al-Mimar said. 'But then after discovering sitting volleyball, I decided that I should remove my sadness, and be happy that I can walk with one leg, and not be affected by the situation.'

Now a father of five and a grandfather of one, al-Mimar said he did not regret going to war since he did not have a choice.

'I felt happy defending my country,' he said. 'But war is not the solution to problems between nations. The government should think more before entering into war. It's always the people who suffer.'

The sole athlete representing Afghanistan, Mohammad Fahim Rahimi, is no soldier but no less qualified to underline war's indelible mark on the Paralympics.

Originally a gymnast and a taekwondo exponent, the then 12-year-old Rahimi stepped onto a landmine in 1994 when on his way back home to check on his grandmother's safety. He has had to live with a prosthetic leg ever since.

Sayed Hawad Akbari, secretary general of the Afghanistan Paralympic Committee, said the athlete was very disappointed at his first Paralympic performance, coming last in the 67.5kg powerlifting of his impairment category, but he was still very proud to make it to the Games. The committee originally recommended four athletes but only Rahimi qualified.

There are about one million amputees in Afghanistan, Mr Akbari estimated, and they receive a US$10 government subsidy per month. If they are athletes, they receive another US$13 plus milk, and this sum is minimal for training an athlete.

'We have equipment. But for our 4,500 keen amputee athletes, what we lack is the money to send them to international competitions so they can improve,' he said.

'We want to show the world that maybe we have war, and we have lots of problems. Our athletes are just as talented, and they can compete in international competitions like every other country.'