Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Kim gives his all

Here's an article that touches on the equality or otherwise of the Beijing Paralympics using Cambodia's sole representative as an example of the have not's.

Oscar Pistorius tramples over notions of equality in Beijing
The four core values of the Paralympic movement are courage, determination, inspiration and equality - by Simon Hart in Beijing for The Telegraph (UK)

It was hard to argue with the first three as Vanna Kim lined up for his 100metres race in the Bird's Nest Stadium. But there was a problem with the fourth. Kim is a 40-year-old Cambodian who, in 1989, had the misfortune to do what more than 40,000 of his countrymen have done since the Khmer Rouge were ousted 29 years ago. He stepped on a landmine and had his right leg torn off below the knee. When you consider that Kim is the only representative in Beijing of a couuntry with one of the highjest percentages of disabled people in the world, the doubts start to creep in about Paralympic equality. But there was another more immediate reason to question the gradient of the playing field as Kim settled into his blocks, wearing a rudimentary running blade that had been donated to him by the South Korean government because he was too poor to pay for one himself. Two lanes away from him was a certain Oscar Pistorius, the South African double-amputee who only just missed out on making his country's Olympic relay team. Attached to his legs were the reason for his famous Blade-Runner nickname: a pair of state-of-the-art J-shaped Cheetah Flex-Foot transibial, carbon-fibre running blades designed by Icelandic company Ossur "to store and release energy in order to mimic the reaction of the anatomical foot/ankle joint of able-bodied runners".

Poor Kim. In a pre-Games interview with a Cambodian newspaper he had described himself as "70 per cent hopeful" of triumphing in Beijing, but his dream disappeared the moment Pistorius' blades jumped out of the blocks and disappeared into the distance, taking him to victory in 11.16sec by a margin of Usain Bolt proportions. Kim, with a limping running gait, was a distant last in 13.45sec. Welcome to the real Paralympic world. No wonder the Cambodian looked bewildered as he wandered alone through the media area beside the track, unable to share his first Paralympic expereince with anyone because nobody spoke Cambodian. Pistorius, on the other hand, was in hot demand by reporters and, ever personable, happy to oblige with his dreams about winning three gold medals in the 100, 200 and 400 metres, and maybe breaking one of his own world records.

Of course, Cheetah blades or not, Kim was never going to challenge an athlete whose achievements have transcended Paralympic sport and who has done more than anyone to raise the profile of disability athletics. But the race proved is that a huge class divide is emerging among Paralympians, both athletic and economic. Kim was only able to make the trip because 60% of his air fare from Cambodia was paid for by the Beijing organisers, with the rest being raised through private donations in his homeland. Pistorius, meanwhile, has been complaining bitterly in Beijing that he and fellow South Africans had to endure economy-class tickets to China while sports officials stretched out and slugged back champagne in business class. He has also been outspoken about the hideous pyjama-style costume that the South African team were supplied with for the opening ceremony and which he and his fellow athletes voted not to wear because the clothing was "something I would be embarrassed to wear in front of millions of people while representing South Africa". If it sounds as if the Blade-Runner has come over all prima donna, the South African government have certainly taken his complaints seriously, ordering a top-level inquiry into the behaviour of team officials. One Freedom Party MP has even described the aeroplane seats fiasco as a "national outrage".

Economy-class tickets? Parade costume? Kim can surely only dream of such luxuries, but he inhabits another world from Pistorius, who has already tasted the big time at some of Europe's top athletics meetings this summer and, cleared to run against able-bodied runners by a court of law, can look forward to plenty of pay days and first-class plane tickets to come as he jets around the world. Kim still has the 200 metres to look forward to before catching his subsidised flight home to Phnom Penh. The snag is that he will have to contend with Pistorius again. With luck, he will have more success with his new career path, coaching disabled athletes in Cambodia. He should have plenty of customers, and plenty to tell them about his own salutary lesson in Beijing.

Note: Kim was given a wildcard into the Paralympics after winning a silver medal in the ASEAN Games in Thailand earlier this year. He has three gold, ten silver and five bronze medals in international competitions under his belt, though the Paralympics is his hardest test on the biggest stage.


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