Celebrating South Africa’s Paralympians

Tim Cohen

The Beijing Olympics have come and gone, only to be quickly subsumed by seemingly more pressing issues – as sporting events often are. For South Africans, this was something of a relief, because the Olympics were close to a disaster for the national team.

The South African team consisted of 137 athletes, the largest team ever sent. But the team only managed a single silver medal at the games, won by Khotso Mokoena in the long jump, by far the lowest tally achieved since readmission in 1994.

This lack of success is unfortunate, but the ethic of the games, so they say, is to compete, not necessarily to win. But the way many of the South Africans lost just seemed to rub salt into the wound.

South Africa’s fabled men’s swim team, anchored by the good-looking Ryk Neetling, actually swam faster than they did when won gold in a record time in Athens. But this time they only came seventh. Diver Jenna Dreyer bellyflopped her way out of the Olympics with a tragic failed dive. BMX racing was introduced as a new sport at Beijing, and the South African team had high hopes for talented rider Sifiso Nhlapo. Unfortunately, Nhlapo not only crashed out, but took two other riders with him.

The whole thing was extremely forgettable. Even the finances were a disaster. The team somehow failed to get corporate sponsor, which had commentators asking what kind of bozo outfit was running the show. “If you can’t find a sponsor for the world’s biggest sporting event, what can you sell?” one commented. The depressing performance for a sporting country with great tradition of sporting success was of course followed by an inevitable round of back-biting and blame apportionment.

But just when everyone was feeling a bit down, as strange thing happened, at least in my mind: the Paralympics. It wasn’t just that the South African team did exceptionally well, but that the team’s performance was underpinned by two extraordinary athletes: Oscar Pistorius and Natalie du Toit.

I’m ashamed to admit I’ve always thought of the Paralympics as a kind of sporting consolation prize – and I suspect many people do. Although I have lots of respect for the participants in a general kind of way, I couldn’t really get enthusiastic about the sports themselves.

Part of the joy of watching sport is exceptionality: some fleeting act of miraculous power or incredible grace. The hard fact is that it’s difficult to seem graceful when you are bundled up in a wheelchair for example – or at least so I thought.

It struck me watching Du Toit and Pistorius that although the events themselves are a bit strange, they do involve a special kind of exceptionality: the sheer power of mental endurance and fortitude.

Pistorius is perhaps the more famous of the two, most likely because of the controversy about his participation in the main Olympic event. He was first barred, on the basis that his prosthetic legs gave him an advantage, which was a little bizarre. But then he was invited to beat the Olympic qualifying times, and was unable to. I suspect this failure made a whole bunch of officials breathe a sigh of relief from the narrowly avoided controversy.

Pistorius’s legs are things called Cheetah Flex-Foot carbon fibre transtibial artificial limbs. They are made by a Finish company called Ossur, and they are miraculous. At a walking pace, he seems to lope in a bouncy sort of way. But when he runs, his natural athletic ability becomes extraordinarily apparent.

One of the problems with the prosthetic legs, however, is that when it rains, he loses grip with the track. He also takes time to get up to speed, so the longer the distance, the better. Pistorius won three gold medals, but the most impressive was the 100m dash on a damp track, which he won by a tiny margin. It was a fabulous performance.

But despite Pistorius’s athletic prowess, my favorite athlete of the moment is Du Toit, partly because of her endearing personal charm. She seems naturally bubbly and down to earth. She apparently has this cutsie poem stuck to her wall:

The tragedy of life does not lie in not reaching your goals;
The tragedy of life lies in not having goals to reach for.
It is not a disgrace not to reach for the stars,
But it is a disgrace not to have stars to reach for.

But she has something else too. She has a special kind of mental toughness that fills you with awe and simultaneously a slight sense of personal inadequacy. What goes through your mind is that you are here, all limbs intact, and yet you could never in a million years hold a candle to this person.

In one of the press pieces about her experiences, she recalled that shortly after losing her leg in a motorbike accident she didn’t really think about the consequences for her athletic career.

“I just wanted to get back to life again – swimming four hours a day – and I wanted to be able to walk again so that I would be able to do things by myself,” she told PH Mullen, a reporter for SwimmingWorld.

The same journal records that she hated the pity of her friends and teammates. Consequently, she would pull back the sheets to shock them with her half leg. Several nearly fainted.

There is something about the bravery, the anger and defiance involved in doing such a thing so soon after the accident; it is strangely impressive. I can’t imagine what it must mean to lose a limb, but I suspect that right then and there, perhaps without realising it, she stood at the crossroads and chose a direction. And that direction was forward.

Du Toit was the only disabled athlete to participate in the main Beijing Olympics, but she did badly. But she won five gold medals at the Paralympics, which is amazing enough. She also gaily told the BBC that she will try for more at the London Olympics, even though she is unlikely to win the breast-stroke events which favour disabled athletes with legs.

Olympians are supposed to participate for the joy of competing. But there is so much money and fame to be had from winning, few seem to honour this idea. If they need a refresher course in what it means to be real athlete, they could take a look at the events taking place next door.

Tim Cohen is a freelance journalist writing for a variety of South African publications. He is currently contracted as a columnist to Business Day and the Weekender, where he worked for most of his career, and financial website Moneyweb where he writes on business and corporate activity for an associate site called Dealweb. He was the 2004 Sanlam Financial Journalist of the Year.