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EAST TIMOR: Disabled Athletes Shine With Pride

Matt Crook

DILI, Jul 6 2009 (IPS) - Getting around isn’t easy for Jose Noronha. With minimal use of his legs, he has opted for a red wheelchair-bicycle hybrid that he pedals with his hands, a common sight in Dili, East Timor’s capital.

In a small field with patches of grass and mounds of sand, he is out of his chair, alternating a pair of flip flops between his hands and feet as he shuffles into position.

Picking up a five kilogram shotput, he swings back and forth before unleashing a piercing growl as he launches the metal ball into the air. He watches it land five metres away.

“I enjoy doing this,” he says. “Because I can practise like this, I can be happy; I can do something.”

Part of the nation’s under-supported troop of disabled athletes, 46-year-old Noronha first started throwing shotputs in 1991 during the Indonesian occupation, which lasted for 24 years until 1999.

“I practise here four times a week, lifting and throwing,” says Noronha, who services radios and televisions when he’s not hurling shotputs.

He had been hoping to secure a spot at this month’s Lusophony Games in Portugal, but a dearth of funding opportunities means that East Timor can only send two athletes.

Manuel Marquis, 27, an ambulant athlete with an impaired leg and arm function, is one of the lucky ones. Running back and forth along the field, Marquis thunders across the grass as beads of sweat dribble off his body.

Marquis will go to Portugal to compete in three long-distance events: the 5,000 metres, 10,000 metres and a 21-kilometre mini-marathon.

“When I go to represent my country, the main thing I want to do is make a lot of effort,” he says. “Even if I don’t win any medals, at least I can try.”

Marquis and Noronha aren’t the only ones training in Dili. Near the patchy field, Juliao Soares da Silva, head of East Timor’s National Paralympics Committee, has opened up his home to the nation’s disabled athletes.

Space is limited at the family residence, where da Silva lives with his wife, five sons, six daughters and an ebullient bunch of nieces and nephews.

Da Silva went to the Asean ParaGames in Vietnam in 2003 under the flag of the United Nations. “They recommended for us to go back to our country and build a Paralympics organisation,” he says.

The National Paralympics Committee was formed in 2004 with da Silva at the helm. Since then, East Timor’s disabled athletes have been all over the world.

Pascoela Pereira, 28, was at the Arafura Games held in Darwin, Australia, this May, from which East Timor brought back 13 medals. Her skinny legs may be weak, but put a table tennis bat in her hand and she can do some damage. Pereira first got involved with the team in 2007.

“I was just walking around one time when some guy called to me to ask me to be an athlete. I asked him, ‘How Come?’ I didn’t know there was this. He told me that I could go to Mr Juliao’s house and so Mr Juliao asked if I can play table tennis,” she says.

“I said, ‘Not too much,’ but he taught me how and I liked it, so I started to play. It makes me stronger and I’m happy to move,” adds Pereira, who is now the coordinator for the women’s Paralympic team.

Pereira came home from the Arafura games with a silver and a bronze medal.

“My family says that if I’m happy, they’re happy. When I came back from the Arafura Games, my mum said I made her proud. She gave me a hug and kisses,” says Pereira, who works as a nanny for an expat couple in her spare time.

Next up for Pereira is this year’s Asean ParaGames in Malaysia, slated for August.

Despite all this hope and success, Juliao Soares da Silva says East Timor’s disabled athletes are a force in need.

“We’ve been working for about six years, but we don’t get enough support from the government or anyone else. We get support, with uniforms, tickets and hotels, only if there is a big event on,” says da Silva, who buys most of the squad’s equipment.

“We see that disabled people have a talent and we want to build that talent,” he adds.

Other sports the disabled athletes take part in include badminton, power lifting and athletics.

In da Silva’s backyard there is a hustle of activity around a ping pong table where athletes take turns to slug it out. Some use wheelchairs, one has an amputated arm and others stand on club feet or weakened legs.

Across town from da Silva’s house, down a rocky, dusty road, there is a small, sweaty shed with no air and a lot of old weightlifting equipment.

With his legs strapped to a bench, 28-year-old Jacinto Pereira bench presses a barbell in front of old wrestling posters, all under the watchful eye of Domingos Freitas, president of East Timor’s Disabled Power Lifting Federation.

Pereira says he can bench press 120 kilograms, but he doesn’t have much hope of winning any medals in the future because of a lack of decent training equipment and facilities.

August’s Asean ParaGames and the 2012 London Paralympic Games are some of the major events East Timor’s seven disabled power lifters are aiming for, but the athletes are in dire need of aid.

“If we’re going to get to London, we need more support. We need more barbells, weights, benches. We’ve had to buy all the equipment ourselves,” says Freitas.

In the meantime, people like shot-putter Noronha, runner Marquis, table-tennis star Pascoela Pereira and power lifter Jacinto Pereira will carry on with their preparations for international events.

“For all the disabled people in East Timor, I say don’t be so frustrated,” Pereira says. “You can do something for your country even though you’re disabled.”

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