RNZI: The Oceania Paralympic Committee is calling on Olympic committees in the Pacific to do more to support their Paralympic counterparts.
This comes after five Pacific Island nations were forced to withdraw from the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
Last month the International Paralympic Committee announced Samoa, Kiribati, Tonga and Vanuatu couldn’t attend because of travel restrictions due to Covid-19.
The uncertainty, costs, and risks of bringing Covid-19 into the country also saw the Solomon Islands pull out just hours before their flight was scheduled to depart.
Organising committees provide travel grants for every country attending the Paralympic Games, which covers the costs of airfares and accomodation, but President of the Oceania Paralympic Committee, Paul Bird, said that isn’t enough.
“For countries that don’t have the funds sitting in their bank account, they’re relying on the government or local fundraising to be able to purchase their fares in advance, because they’re not going to receive their 60 percent (from the organising committees) until maybe a couple of weeks before they board their flight,” he said.
With all of the global Covid-19 travel restrictions, even countries that were better off than others could not make it to the Games, he added.
“Vanuatu was in a fortunate position because of their active committee, they’ve got a really good support base in Vanuatu and they were able to have their air fares raised, but they were struggling to find the cost to cover their quarantine.”
Vanuatu’s Paralympic Committee president, Margaret Macfarlane, said it was “technically impossible” to find a way.
“Vanuatu Paralympics is self-funded, the old sort of model of sausage sizzles on the weekend. We have no core funding from any agency, and so our finances were very constrained and it just seemed like an extremely risky thing to undertake,” she said.
She said the list of operational difficulties went on and on.
“It’s incredibly simple things too that are so difficult you know, the person who’s paying for the ticket with their credit card has to be one of the people traveling, we don’t have a corporate card for Vanuatu Paralympic Committee.”
“We tried to charter a flight so we could maybe get to Fiji on return, and then charter a flight from Nadi to here [Vanuatu], but the quote was $94 thousand dollars US for five people one way.”
That’s double the committee’s entire budget to attend the 2020 Games.
Papua New Guinea and Fiji were the only Pacific nations to compete this year.
Secretary General of Fiji’s Paralympic Committee, Shivanjani Singh, said while the situation kept changing, the Fijian Paralympians were determined to push forward.
“Everybody kept doing what they were supposed to do, everybody kept pushing hard, and in the end, everything just fell through and the result of it is just seeing where we are right now,” she said.
“The National Paralympic Committee also included us in their quarter to travel so we managed to go through all those hurdles and the challenges so not once did we consider withdrawing because we kept trying and we are here.”
The absence of so many Pacific Island countries from this year’s Paralympics is also a big deal, because it doubles as a pre-qualifying event for the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
Now Paralympians from Samoa, Kiribati, Tonga, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands don’t know if they can compete at the 2022 event.
Vanuatu’s Margaret Macfarlane said the dilema will only repeat itself when looking at future events.
“We have two new para athletes who are just emerging and definitely have podium results potential, but we can’t fly with them to Australia or New Zealand to have them classified, because you have to have an MRI sometimes and an advanced x-ray and so on, and you’ve got to have two classifications, it’s not like the Olympics.
“For a para-athlete, they have to be medically assessed by two internationally qualified classifiers who classify them into a certain competition category, and then they have to compete at an internationally recognized competition to then qualify to go into competition anywhere in the World.
So you know, [where] are we going to get that done between now and July next year?”, she said.
All hope is not lost though.
The Oceania Paralympic Committee is currently planning a major event in the Solomon Islands next year for those who missed out.
President Paul Bird is hoping the event will be approved as a qualifier for the Commonwealth Games.
He said they’re desperately holding onto athletes, and there needs to be equal opportunity across the board.
“It’s a conundrum that we need to try to overcome as we move on now to see what else we can do to raise their profiles and get them connected with their governments, and understanding that it is sport and they should be treated like their Olympic counterparts.”
“We are desperately wanting to hold on to those athletes and trying to put the carrot in front of them that you’ve got Commonwealth Games, you’ve got the Pacific Games, and then you’ve got Paris. So if we can hang on and support you and guide you for the next three years, we would hope to be able to hold them within their sport and within their programs.”
Bird said Olympic and Paralympic committees are “miles apart” and he believes they need to work together under one organisation moving forward.
“They would be much better off having the one organization managing their affairs, which means there would be the possibility of some extra funding support for [those] one or two parasport athletes.”
“We will now be looking at seeing whether we can join their Olympic and Paralympic committees to have one body because really the companies, generally they’re too small to be able to cope and cater for our Paralympic athletes.”