Does Iraq Have an Unfair Advantage at the Paralympics?

New York Times story here.

From Wikipedia: The Paralympic Games are a multi-sport event for athletes with physical, mental and sensorial disabilities. This includes mobility disabilities, amputees, visual disabilities and those with cerebral palsy. The Paralympic Games are held every four years, following the Olympic Games, and are governed by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC).

“As a country that participated in many wars since 1980, we have many disabled people,” said Ahmed Abid Hassan, a wheelchair fencing coach. “Our Paralympic team is better than our Olympic team.”

While guiding a squad of fencers in wheelchairs through their paces, Mr. Hassan pointed out that the Paralympic team had qualified 20 athletes for the Games in Beijing, in contrast to the single Olympic athlete. Twelve of the Paralympic qualifiers are disabled war veterans.

Working out in sweaty gyms in hardscrabble neighborhoods, with creaky wheelchairs and hand-me-down gear, the Iraqi Paralympic team of 2008 is wrapping up what is surely one of the most trying training seasons.

The coach of the wheelchair basketball team, Ibrahim Abdullah, a basketball player who did not use a wheelchair, was fatally shot in the head during a firefight. He was 6-foot-6. Players said his head had been visible over a wall as the shooting started.

And a blind athlete, Qasim Muttar, who was a promising player of goalball — soccer played with a ball that contains bells — died after being run over by an American convoy while crossing a street.

The Paralympic team includes men and women wounded in the current war, though none qualified for Beijing. The veterans heading for China fought in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and the Persian Gulf war of 1991.

Faraj Hasab Khudhair, Iraq’s star wheelchair fencer, lost a leg below the knee to a mortar shell in 1986. Mr. Khudhair, a fit, leanly muscled 41-year-old, said he ventured out during United States airstrikes in his Diyala Bridge neighborhood of Baghdad to get to training sessions. “When clashes erupt, will that mean I stay home?” he said, sounding as if he were discussing rainy weather.

To be sure, Iraq’s regular Olympic team has suffered its share of woes, too.

Two years ago, for example, all 18 members of the Olympic tae kwon do team were kidnapped and killed in Anbar Province in western Iraq while returning from a match. Their bodies were later found in a mass grave, still in their tattered sports uniforms.

Ahmed al-Hijiya, who led the National Olympic Committee of Iraq, was kidnapped and killed in 2006. And this month, the International Olympic Committee provisionally suspended the Iraqi national committee, citing political interference in its makeup. The decision put in doubt whether even the one weight lifter will go to China, but it did not affect the Paralympic team.

But it’s not just Iraq that has a surfeit of disabled but otherwise fit young athletes to send to the games. The United States is also experiencing a large influx in those ranks.

Here’s some info:

Estimates are that war veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan will make up as much as 15 percent of the U.S. team by the 2012 Paralympics in London.

And a bit more:

[Melissa] Stockwell, who lost her left leg to a roadside bomb in Baghdad, was one of 18 women named to the U.S. Paralympic Swim Team on Sunday, becoming the first Iraq war veteran to be selected for the Paralympics.

No Iraq or Afghanistan veterans were among U.S. disabled athletes in Athens in 2004 or Turin in 2006. Stockwell is the first to land on the team headed to Beijing this summer.

And a little more:

Because it typically takes about three years to adequately rehab and train for the Paralympics, only a handful of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars may qualify for the 2008 team. Register is confident that veterans from those wars will make up at least 15% of the U.S. teams for the 2010 and 2012 Games.

Once again I have to thank Chuck Shepherd’s News of the Weird for bringing this story to my attention.

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