The Paralympics, which concluded in London on Sunday, were no ordinary sporting competition, they were an event to celebrate the triumph of will over disability, and the human ability to excel, create and achieve despite all obstacles, adverse conditions and restrictions. The disabled athletes who came to London and ignited the Paralympics with their passionate enthusiasm and outstanding willpower, not only said to the world “we are here”, but “we deserve a chance to prove that we are able to make a difference, accomplish and innovate”. London responded in turn, as the competitions attracted immense popularity and enthusiastic support. There was widespread public interest in the events and the achievements of the athletes, who during their victory interviews often cited the atmosphere created by the audiences in the stands. The games sent a strong message of hope that willpower can always overcome the limitations of disability, as long as society lends itself to that and gives opportunities to disabled people rather than pre-judging and excluding them.
More than 4,200 disabled athletes representing 164 countries from around the world participated in the Paralympics. They competed in 503 different categories of events covering around 20 different sports, ranging from swimming to athletics, shooting to basketball and so on. This year’s competition was not only the largest ever, but it has also been described as the most successful in the history of the Paralympic Games, a concept originally launched in Britain in 1948.
So where were the Arabs in all this?
The Arabs were present but not with the same level of intensity that they participated in the Olympic Games, which took place in London prior to the Paralympics. The Paralympics were almost absent in the Arab media domain given the supposed decline in interest and press coverage, and in many Arab media outlets the games were completely neglected. Yet it was not only the Arab media that was nearly or completely absent, many authorities also criticized the decline in international coverage of the Paralympic Games, compared to the massive attention given to the Olympics. A lot of television channels, newspapers and magazines withdrew their correspondents for financial and commercial reasons after the Olympics, some doing so out of the belief that the Paralympics would not garner the same attention from the public. Of course, some media outlets have since expressed their regret and acknowledged they were mistaken, after witnessing the strong interest and unrivalled enthusiasm shown by the public towards this year’s Paralympic Games, and after the organizing committee announced that all Paralympics tickets – over 2.5 million in total – had sold out. Large numbers also watched the games from outside the stadiums and arenas, on big screens deployed in the Olympic park and central London, while millions around the world watched on television via the coverage of a few global media outlets that had allocated large budgets and devoted their full attention to the Paralympics, thereby distinguishing themselves from others who had fallen into the trap of discrimination or disregard for people with special needs, and had completely misjudged the level of public interest.
The Arab athletes who participated in the Paralympics achieved feats that far exceeded their Olympic counterparts, winning numerous medals and breaking records in some events. Tunisia came first among the Arab and African states with 19 medals, including 9 golds, and ranked 14th overall among the 164 countries participating. Algeria finished second behind Tunisia in terms of the Arab states, with 19 medals, 4 of which were gold, followed by Egypt with 15 medals including 4 golds, Morocco with 6 medals including 3 golds, then the UAE with one gold medal and Iraq with three medals; two silvers and one bronze. Female Arab athletes won a number of events and some set world records in doing so, such as the Moroccan Najat el-Garraa, who achieved a new world record in the discus throw. They stand alongside several of their male colleagues who smashed the world records in their respective events, such as the Tunisian runner Abderrahim Zhiou, the Egyptian powerlifter Mohamed Eldib, the Algerian discus thrower Mohamed Berrahal, the Moroccan shot putter Azeddine Nouiri and his compatriot El Amin Chentouf who achieved a new world record in the 5000 meters, or the Tunisian wheelchair sprinter Walid Ktila who set a new world record in the 200 meters.
Disabled Arab athletes achieved these feats despite the fact that most complain of a lack of domestic support or interest, whereby they do not receive the same backing as their able-bodied colleagues. They claim they do not receive sufficient training and they suffer from a lack of equipment or the special arrangements that they need. Likewise, their achievements have not received any form of media coverage to rival the attention given to the Arab Olympic athletes. The Tunisian sprinter Neda Bahi, who won a gold medal at the London Paralympics, expressed these sentiments in an interview with BBC Arabic, saying that where disabled people really suffer is in the discrimination and disregard for their needs or their achievements, compared to what their able-bodied counterparts receive. She expressed her hope that people are now becoming aware and no longer discriminate against those with disabilities.
Disabled people in the Arab world undoubtedly suffer from neglect and discrimination, and are even excluded completely in some cases, because a lot of our societies do not recognize their rights or even their existence. They are deprived of their most basic rights to education and employment, and they are not looked upon with a compassionate eye that appreciates their suffering and recognizes their disability, without regarding it as a constraint preventing them from having access to decent living opportunities and being treated equally. A few states and cities have directed their attention to the disabled and their needs, such as Riyadh, which officially announced over two years ago that it had become the first disabled-friendly city in Saudi Arabia, and one hopes that all Arab cities will eventually reach this standard. There are about twenty million people with physical disabilities in the Arab world, or even more according to some statistics that suggest the victims of recent wars and conflicts further add to the number of those with disabilities. These people need to be considered equal and treated in a dignified manner. Perhaps this is the most important message to come from the Paralympics.