Article Place & Self

A hair-raising ride

For disabled cyclists in Africa, taking to the road means daily dicing with death

Many a true word is spoken in jest

News Flash 20 February 2015 - two days before the Outeniqua Chair Challenge (OCC) in George, one of the Zimbabwe athletes was run over in her racing wheelchair by a motorist while she was training. She died in hospital. Two more able-bodied cyclists were killed in Cape Town this week. Cycling is a hazardous pastime - and even more so for disabled athletes who take their lives in their hands on busy roads. Ends

As observers we often pass idle remarks or speak in jest, not realising the truth behind the remark. Having been closely involved with persons with disabilities for many years and rank many as friends, I am aware of the challenges that each person and their families face every day. Despite these hurdles there is a fierce determination to live as normal a life as possible and to excel in all aspects of life.

Athletics and cycling/racing are two of them. When the two are combined it truly can become a hair-raising or deadly ride, as wheelchair racers take to the roads to practise and take part in events. They are vulnerable as they sit low on the ground, barely 120 centimetres above the road surface, and are more difficult for drivers to see than runners or cyclists. At best a cyclist can attempt to jump a curb, at worst a tragedy occurs… Zimbabwean athlete Dorcas Hwatira was the first person in the 13-year history of the OCC to have lost her life practising for another 42 km marathon win.

The challenge that led to the biggest annual wheelchair event in South Africa

Off-road cyclists and bikers will know how the adrenalin pumps when racing against competitors down a mountainside. But put 27 physically challenged people in wheelchairs, very few of them adapted for racing, on the Outeniqua Pass in George with a series of S-bends that would raise the hairs on the heads of even seasoned racers, and let off the starter’s gun - it had to be seen to be believed. It was from this first hair-raising ride that the annual Outeniqua (wheel) Chair Challenge (OCC) was formed.

With an average gradient of 1:22, the Outeniqua Pass is no mean feat for any cyclist to climb and fortunately the wheelchair racers only had to face the downhill run. Even so, it is gut-wrenching. I remember my teenaged son Ross rushing in, face aglow, on one occasion to say that he’d reached 80kph on his mountain bike as it (and he most likely) screamed round the bends!

So when the first wheelchair race was announced in the local newspaper in 2002, it was with some disbelief. I remember that first race well; I owned a guest house on part of the route at the bottom of the pass – my heart was racing at the thought of rudderless, uncontrollable wheelchairs with scared occupants hurtling past my gate. Instead here were smiling, triumphant, if rather exhausted (budding) athletes who had conquered what must have initially seemed an impossible challenge.

Since that first 21km half-marathon organised by occupational therapist Esther Watson, I have kept track of the event and befriended some of the athletes, notably a group from Zimbabwe who have grown in strength and prowess since they first took part.

Esther’s interest in disabled sports came from her passion of working with people with disabilities when she worked with the health department in George. It is the largest municipality in the Southern Cape district of the Western Cape where people with disabilities come for assessment, treatment and outpatient care at the government hospital.

Fortunately, the South African government recognises that people with disabilities need to lead as full a life as they can and to achieve this Disability Sports South Africa (DISSA) was formed, which gives disabled people the opportunity of achieving their potential in sport and recreation in their own environment.

Esther saw the opportunity of introducing an exclusive wheelchair race for athletes to expand their sporting proficiencies. As the event grew and with the attraction of South African world record holder, Ernst van Dyk, competing in the now extended 42km marathon on a less formidable route, international athletes and participants from further afield, including France, Canada, Australia, Zimbabwe, Ghana and Namibia have taken part.

In 2006, the OCC was awarded SA National Championship status, was a qualifying race for marathon athletes in the SA Paralympic team for the 2008 and 2012 Paralympic Games and has been endorsed by the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC) and DISSA since 2009.

For many rural people, the OCC is their first opportunity to take part in an exclusive wheelchair-friendly event, where their needs are taken care of, from sponsored transport to George and transport and accommodation during and after the event. George municipality, as well as sponsoring, hosts pre-race programmes such as wheelchair basketball and other community events where able-bodied people can pitch their skills against the athletes. Excitement mounts as the highlight of the pre-race events is the “‘banquet” where participants and their entourages renew friendships, meet sporting heroes and entertainers and catch up on news.

In Africa up to 80 million people live with disability

The OCC is especially poignant when you realise that there are some 60–80m people living with disabilities in sub-Saharan Africa - that is about 10-20% of the general population. Many disabled people are marginalised by society and will not get the chance to go to school, or have jobs, and will be forced to eke out a living as beggars. Apart from birth defects, many people in the poorest populations become disabled through disease and malnutrition, civil strife and natural or environmental disasters, although many disabilities are the result of motor vehicle and industrial accidents.

It is no wonder that given the opportunity, disabled people from far-flung areas are prepared to travel for days in the most uncomfortable, non-wheelchair friendly transport to take part in the OCC.

Event director Ansie Swart, who took over the OCC after Esther lost her battle with leukaemia in 2013, says that most of the R950,000 sponsorship money for the OCC is spent on bringing the participants to George and providing accommodation so that they can take part in an event that for many is the highlight of their year.

“We also broke a new record this year with 1,106 entrants who entered all categories from the 42km and 21km marathons and half-marathon, 10km race and 5km fun walk.”

The fun walk is the climax of the day’s events when disabled children and adults, from the very young to very old, are pushed through the streets of George by celebrities from the sports and entertainment worlds, road runners and community members.

For many parents and carers of physically and mentally challenged children and adults, the OCC is the one time in the year where the burdens of 24-hour care are lifted for a few hours, as their loved ones are taken care of for a while and they let their hair down.

More than 1,000 volunteers take part in the OCC every year and preparations start at least a day before the event, preparing the course, putting up tents, organising the timetable for disabled-friendly buses to collect participants from public transport and making sure that the accommodation at nearby school hostels and resorts is prepared and ready for their special guests.

By dawn, marshals are waiting at their designated posts, water stands and medical tents are set up, as are the bicycle repair mechanics – there are always last-minute crises before the starter’s gun goes off. Stall-holders start cooking the ubiquitous boerewors rolls and the twirly potatoes on sticks that are so popular with kids – the smell tantalising, drawing the first spectators to give in to their rumbling tummies, while other groups of volunteers get ready to prepare a post-race meal for participants.

Heavy rain and wind add to the sombre mood

21 February 2015, 07:45 - the atmosphere is electric as athletes impatiently flex their muscles and maybe do a wheelie or two as they get ready to line up in their category pens, waiting for the starter’s gun to go off in 15 minutes.

Heavy rain and wind at this year’s OCC add to the sombre mood following Dorcas’ death. Dorcas was a category winner in 2013 but two of her Zimbabwean team mates, Moleen Majoni and Samson Muroyiwa, are category winners, while Margret Bansajena comes second in her category.

“Unfortunately accidents happen and we had to carry on, but the weather was against us, with rain and gusting wind, which made it difficult to cycle in,” says disappointed team mate and ardent race supporter, Wilson Nyakoko, who has been coming to the OCC since 2009.

Ernst van Dyk, champion of the OCC since its inception, is the overall winner of this year’s marathon and narrowly missed defending his 2014 title by 36 seconds, finishing in a time of 1:09:12. He is closely followed by fellow South Africans, Andries Scheepers, who comes second in 1:09:19, and Stuart McCreadie, third in 1:09:29.

Overcoming obstacles

Over the years that I have followed the OCC I have made friends and followed several budding athletes, including my Zimbabwean buddies, whom I have seen rise from awkward (malnourished) athletes, battling to stay the course, to confident, strong people who have been invited to take part in events in other countries. They are also ‘’paying it forward’’ like Wilson, who recently went on a seven-day round trip by bus from Harare, Zimbabwe, to Arusha, Tanzania, to donate a hand cycle to another athlete.

It is hard for able-bodied people to understand the dynamics of physical disability and what it entails. When I first encountered Wilson, Dorcas and friends they were straggly, hungry and dirty with just a single change of clothes and ill-fitting tracksuits tied up in plastic bags that contained the remnants of the food they brought with them for the three-day journey. At that time Zimbabwe was in recession; the athletes had no other resources and were dependent on the generosity of the OCC and donations from local South Africans.

Public transport (buses) in most developing regions is not designed for people who are physically challenged and are in wheelchairs or using crutches. Having struggled on to the bus, by any means, including sliding on your bottom, you are there to stay unless there is a long enough stopover to enable a bathroom stop before the bus roars off again. Consequently, long-distance travel on transport without facilities for a person with a disability means dehydration. Drinking liquids is out of the question, unless you wish to have an accident.

The team would arrive in George dehydrated and debilitated and with less than a day to practise before the race. But they were indomitable and always cheerful and this is what I admire about them. Most of us would rather stay at home than endure enforced discomfort. But that is where the strength of disabled athletes lies – in their endurance and determination to stay the course and win.

Today the Zimbabwean team are “’official”, says Wilson – they are recognised as an athletics team in their own country and proudly wear their official attire. They also come well prepared, have some sponsorship in place and arrive at least three days in advance to acclimatise and practise.

However, there is still much to be done before the 60m disabled people in Africa (and the rest of the world) get equal rights and equal opportunities.

Fact file

Did you know that at the 2012 Summer Paralympic Games, South Africans won 32 medals compared to six won by “able-bodied” athletes at the 2012 Olympic Games? Physically challenged athletes have to put in that much extra to achieve their goals - the OCC is where it can start for many of them.

Of the more than 1,000 entries to participate in the annual OCC (marathon, half-marathon, 10km fun race and 5km fun walk) there can be up to 300 non-entrants because of illness such as lung and bladder infections that are exacerbated by lack of mobility.

Disabled athletes face many challenges during training and competition, although sports science and medicine is becoming more proficient in dealing with challenges. Wheelchair athletes typically sustain upper extremity injuries, while cerebral palsy athletes sustain both upper and lower extremity injuries; this is because they often have injuries involving the knee and foot resulting from problems with spasticity and foot deformities.

Much publicised recently, because it still happens in South Africa - the story of the disabled woman from Cape Town who had to slide on her bottom to the back of an intercity bus unaided. She was forced to sit immobile for 18 hours without being helped and she could not even go to the toilet. This is a daily occurrence for many disabled people who are either ignored, humiliated and verbally, if not physically abused.


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