KABUL, June 18 (Reuters) - Limping on his prosthetic leg as he crosses a barren room scattered with a motley collection of weights, powerlifter Mohammad Fahim Rahimi laments the poverty and neglect preventing the large number of disabled Afghans from pursuing sport.
The 29-year-old is the only Afghan athlete to have qualified for this year’s Paralympics in London, but there is hope that the Games will highlight the fate of Afghanistan’s estimated two million disabled people.
“I want to make my country proud, to bring back a medal,” said Rahimi, whose right leg was blown off above the knee by a Soviet landmine when he was 12 years old.
“But no money for the bus fare means my students often can’t make it here, and I don’t even train on a standard bench,” he told Reuters, pointing to the mismatched weights on his dumbbell.
Poverty, conflict and, grimly, more powerful bombs mean Afghanistan has a large number of physically disabled people, most of whom are unemployed, victimised and face widespread discrimination in a country where they are seen as weak.
Afghanistan is now hoping the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) will offer four other athletes “wild cards” for the August Games meaning they can compete without qualifying on normal criteria.
Their injuries and inflictions reflect Afghanistan’s violent history, from the Soviet invasion in 1979 to the NATO-led war against Taliban insurgents started just over a decade ago.
They include a shooting hopeful who lost both legs during a Taliban attack as the group swept to power in the 1990s to a swimmer whose legs were taken off above the knee by a landmine in the capital Kabul.
“Three decades of war have left so many Afghans disabled and we hope the Paralympics will encourage them,” said Mohammad Sami Darayi, the head of Afghanistan’s Paralympic Committee.
“But for this, we’ll also need a proper budget,” he added, echoing concerns voiced by Afghanistan’s taekwondo athletes going to the Olympics.
Afghanistan was late to discover sport for the disabled. The first Afghan athletes to go to the Paralympics, a pair of cyclists, went to Atlanta in 1996.
Rahimi participated in Beijing in 2008, but did not manage to take any medals home.
“In recent years we did very little for the disabled as far as sports is concerned. This was a mistake,” said Alberto Cairo, an Italian physiotherapist in charge of seven Red Cross orthopaedic centres across Afghanistan.
Cairo spoke to Reuters at the newly built basketball court on the grounds of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), where eight Afghan wheelchair teams had just competed in their first national competition.
Their legs strapped tight so they do not slip out of their wheelchairs as they deftly whiz about, the players could hardly contain their excitement.
“Playing basketball is so much more than just playing a sport. It’s an opening of their lives,” their trainer of the last two months, American Jess Markt, said of the sport founded shortly after World War Two by disabled U.S. veterans.
Ahmad Shaphur, the sprightly 18-year-old captain of the winning team from northern Faryab province, urged the government to pay attention to their plight.
“Some of us are thrown out of our homes because we can’t work, we have no money and no way to get money,” said Shaphur, who was unable to walk from birth. “If they would just give us a little attention, we would not accept defeat”.
Markt, a professional wheelchair basketball player for the New York Rollin’ Knicks, hopes Afghan teams can become good enough to compete internationally within two years.
He also hopes that in a decade the country could put in a bid for the Paralympics, where the sport is dominated by the United States, Canada, Australia and Britain.
Five years ago the IPC approached British charity Motivation, which provides low-cost wheelchairs to the disabled in developing countries, and asked them to produce a low-cost chair for basketball.
They came up with wheelchairs priced at $280 - a tenth of the cost of a custom-made one and plan to launch a low-cost racing chair at the Paralympics, said co-founder David Constantine. (Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman; editing by Ken Ferris)