June 28 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia coach Sami Zreili does not put much stock in the idea that taking part at the Paralympic Games in London this summer is more important than winning.
”This mentality of participation as being enough is long gone,“ he told Reuters by telephone from his home country of Tunisia. ”For me as a coach, to take part in the Paralympics you have to be (aiming to be) in the top 10 of the world.
“The point of this is not just to take part but to get medals. We need someone to get to the final stages and not get kicked out at the first stage.”
Zreili, who has been working with a squad of six athletes, will chose four for the trip to London for the Aug. 29-Sept. 9 Paralympics.
That team is likely to include Hani Al-Nakhilli, who broke the discuss world record in 2011, and Osamah Alshanqiti, Saudi Arabia’s only Paralympic medallist having won gold in the triple jump and silver in the long jump in Beijing four years ago.
Able-bodied Zreili, 39, has been coaching since 1997. He started training disabled athletes two years later and took the Saudi squad to Beijing in 2008.
”I would see them in the club training and they did not need anything special,“ he said. ”On the contrary, disabled people put more in to training, especially mentally, than other athletes.
“As a coach, you adapt training to each athlete depending on their competence and skill and you adapt the training to the player, not the player adapting to the training regime.”
Zreili said breaking down the stigma of disability, and encouraging athletes and families to become involved had taken time.
”Things are improving but very slowly, not at a fast pace,“ he said. ”There are families that have disabled children at home, embarrassed to take them out.
”There are those who say, ‘Poor guy, he’s disabled’ and that is a mistake. You should not feel sorry for a disabled person as if you do then it is over for them.
“On the contrary, disabled people should be treated as normal people, not a special case, and the same applies to training in the Paralympics. I train these athletes as I train able-bodied athletes. Nothing changes.”
Breaking down barriers to the participation of disabled athletes in Saudi Arabia is one thing but the barrier to female participation remains.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei are the only three countries not to have sent women athletes to any previous Olympic or Paralympic Games.
Qatar and Brunei are set to break that cycle this year by selecting women to take part at the July 27-Aug. 12 Olympics, but Saudi Arabia’s continued failure to do so on the basis of its national law means it will be alone in fielding men-only squads in 2012.
”To be honest it is a great shame that women in Saudi Arabia do not participate in the Olympics and Paralympics,“ said Zreili. ”If we had even one woman we might have been able to take six athletes as if you do not have women (on your team) you lose about 30 percent of your quota.
”There are Saudi women who participate (in sport) in Saudi, but it is very localised and outside participation is very difficult.
“It desperately needs to happen and it will, sooner or later.” (Editing by Peter Rutherford)