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Sporting Life

Why Para Games transport plan carries element of risk

The visiting athlete's hands are abraded, his shoulders aching, his ego eroded, his ambition dented. He sweated for months and now scowls in defeat. As he returns from the stadium, he craves the comfort of silence and the solitude to gripe. And yet here he is, bag on shoulder, the perspiring foreigner, bunched between possibly gawking Singaporeans, homeward bound on a train. The extraordinary athlete as ordinary commuter.

It is a scenario impossible at the Olympics, has surely never been done at an Asian Games, was probably not considered for the SEA Games. And, of course, it is now about to be implemented for the Asean Para Games.

Feel free to be astonished.

It is a noble idea, even prescient in a way, and yet tinged with unpredictability. If the experiment fails, for whatever reason, it is the disabled athlete who will feel the cost and that seems profoundly unfair.

 
 

Disabled athletes who can travel on their own will be encouraged to use the MRT to get to the Sports Hub - taking the public road to greatness as it were - and it is an idea that is somewhat unsettling but partially inspiring. If it is a faster way to get to a stadium then someone should have told that to the SEA Games stars.

A three-stop trek by train is not testing, for negotiating the MRT scarcely compares with bowling when you're blind. Few journeys anyway can compare with the daily travails and travels of these athletes. Jovin Tan, a sailor with cerebral palsy, once told me it took him 10 minutes to tie his shoelaces. Then for four hours, heated in the sun, chafed by the wind, he trains.

In one sense he's just like any other athlete. It's just that his tribe is being asked to commute, unlike any other athlete. It is not a challenge for the para-athlete but it sounds like an inconvenience. After all, they too have the right to concentration before competition and often this comes through privacy.

Predictably their budget ($75 million) is smaller than the SEA Games' ($324.5 million) and one might argue this is only fair since more athletes arrive at the SEA Games and more spectators assemble as witnesses. And yet it is up to us to correct the imbalance: Perhaps we should have sent SEA Games athletes by public transport and kept their funds to convey Para athletes via official buses.

And yet this idea of the disabled athlete commuting by train is intriguing. If we presume the practicalities - guides and assistance for athletes - have been addressed, then we must examine the benefits of the everyday citizen sharing space with the disabled. An education on rails may occur for a culture needs to change.

On Tuesday, at an MRT station, Tan waited in his wheelchair for a lift. When it arrived, it was crowded and no one made way for him. "I was too slow," he laughed. Yet it is an indignity he need not confront and a discourtesy to the disabled that is scarcely unfamiliar in Asia.

Uneasiness is often born of ignorance. But when the office-going Singaporean accountant meets a paraplegic Vietnamese archer and Indonesian footballer with cerebral palsy in the confines of a train carriage, then differences might melt.

To see the archer and a gang of track-suited folk is to first know a Games is on. To talk to the footballer might be to find he dislikes Chelsea as much as you do. To see them handle life is to witness courage close up. To listen to their tales is to marvel at their will.

On the platform we might realise this city belongs to everyone. In the train we might give up our seats and quietly say "good luck". In every host city it is not feats themselves that illuminate the Games but the grace of its citizenry.

Sport can be trivial and yet often profound, a prosaic activity only concerned with winning and yet also a place for social progress. It is in arenas that African-American athletes fought racism and on the fields that gifted women mocked sexist attitudes. Prejudice has bent to valour in the playground.

Because sport touches so many of us its reach is wide. It is thus a fascinating place for a venture in inclusiveness yet also a precarious one where we might offend our visitors and embarrass ourselves.

William Wan, general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, says he has "mixed feelings" for as he explains: "If our people do not know how to relate to our visitors or engage them in a helpful manner, we may inadvertently offend our guests and thus make their time here unpleasant. That will be very unfortunate for we would then have carried out a social experiment at the expense of our guests."

It is a noble idea, even prescient in a way, and yet tinged with unpredictability. If the experiment fails, for whatever reason, it is the disabled athlete who will feel the cost and that seems profoundly unfair. Organisers are understandably looking at the bigger picture, yet also flirting with risk. After all, to ask them to take a train may be to slight a tribe of athletes who already know too well the taste of discrimination.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 08, 2015, with the headline 'Para Games transport plan carries an element of risk'. Print Edition | Subscribe