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With 185 medals South Africa’s Paralympic tradition is a damn fine one

The team of 34 heading for Tokyo are a mix of something old and something new

Ntando Mahlangu (far right )
Ntando Mahlangu (far right )

Five years ago, author Emily Rapp Black, who had a leg amputated when she was four because she was born with a congenital defect, wrote that she knew when the Paralympics were taking place because all her able-bodied friends would be at pains to tell her it was taking place.

“Although Paralympians are getting the attention they have long deserved — more media coverage, more professional sponsorship and endorsements — the tenor of the conversation about these athletes and about disabled bodies in general makes it clear that they are misunderstood by most of the world and, save for this brief period, largely unseen,” Black wrote for the New York Times during the Rio Games.

It seems that, temporarily, able-bodied people make a virtue of their sudden awareness of disabled athletes. Truth is, we’ve been here all along

“It seems that, temporarily, able-bodied people make a virtue of their sudden awareness of disabled athletes. Truth is, we’ve been here all along.”

It is a truism and a spotlight on the fault lines of the difference between the reporting and embrace the disabled and disabled sport receive, and that afforded to able-bodied sport. And for the next two weeks, from August 25 until the Games close on Sunday September 4, SA and the world should take the time and show the nous to balance how to approach the 15% of the globe that are differently abled. 

It is the balance between a high level of sporting excellence and the message; the celebration of brilliance and the awareness of a greater purpose. It is the true realisation of the soul of sport, the ideals we want it to preach and the standards we wish to hold it to. 

South Africa has a damn fine Paralympic tradition. Since the return from isolation in 1992 the Paralympic team has returned 185 medals. From eight won in Barcelona to the boom of Sydney with 38 medals and the muscle-flexing 29 in London, SA has more than held its own.

It has had superstars, from Natalie du Toit to Zanele Situ, from Ernst van Dyk to Ntando Mahlangu, from Ndodomzi Ntutu to, dare we mention his name, Oscar Pistorius. They are amputees, the cerebral palsied, the visually impaired, the spastics, the deaf, the twitchy and the limpers.

Athletes, every one of them. So, who to watch out for in 2021? The Tokyo SA Paralympic team has a mix of something old and something new.

Ernst van Dyk, the wheelchair and hand cycling champion, is back for his eighth and, you would expect, last Games. He will take part in the hand cycling, an event he has won twice and of which he is the defending champion. At the age of 48, he still expects to surprise the younger athletes.

Look to Kgothatso Montjane, who roared to the finals of the Wimbledon wheelchair singles. Look to Charl du Toit who, along with Montjane, will bear the national flag on Tuesday.

South Africa has sent a team of 34 to Tokyo. It is a hard time to be alive during this pandemic. It is a harder time to  be disabled. It is time to remember they have been here all along.


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