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Home » Alternative Issue, Features

Alternative Issue: Burkina Faso’s Paralympians Pave Way for Equal Rights

Submitted by on March 5, 2013 – 11:18 amNo Comment

When Burkina Faso’s Paralympic team arrived in London with nowhere to stay, nowhere to train and not enough money to salvage the situation in a strange country, 24 year old Liam Conlon decided to take matters into his own hands.

The Cambridge graduate put some of the athletes up in his Essex home, made them food before and after training and found them somewhere to train.

“Their government funding was late, I found out there was a problem with their accommodation and training arrangements a few weeks prior to their arrival, however I had no idea as to the extent of these
problems.  I had no official duties to look after the team, however I tried to do everything I could. I set about arranging accommodation at my house and elsewhere as their previous booking was cancelled, and found them a training facility at Brentwood School.” Said Conlon.

Disabled people in Burkina Faso are some of the most marginalised in the country.  They don’t have as much opportunity to go to school, and as a result remain unemployed and have no chance of a real future. According to World Bank statistics, one in ten people are disabled worldwide, yet one in five of the world’s poorest people are disabled.

Obstacles to equal rights lie mainly in public perception of those with disabilities, and provisions such as wider access routes and domestic help are not considered due to discrimination and a lack of funding.  Handicap International say 66 per cent of disabled people in Burkina Faso are not educated, and a further 76 per cent are unemployed.  Added to this, nearly 50 per cent of people say they feel socially isolated by their disabilities.

Liam Conlon and the team at a Paralympic welcome event.

Conlon said: “I have been working on a project with International Service, an International Development charity based in York, to promote disabled sport in Burkina Faso, and to hopefully ensure there are more athletes from the country at the Games in Rio. Showing communities that disabled people can be athletes and compete at international tournaments is a really powerful way of challenging stereotypes, tackling discrimination and ensuring a better future for disabled people in Burkina Faso.”

Alongside his job at PricewaterhouseCoopers, Conlon got up in the morning to make the team breakfast, made them a packed lunch to take to training and prepared dinner in the evening, but not all was plain sailing.

To the team, fresh on British soil, many elements of daily life seemed alien.  But Conlon took all of this in his stride and talks fondly of his experiences while hosting the team.

“On the first day they arrived, one of the men nearly burned the house down. He put the electric kettle on the hob and turned it on to boil water, and there was something like that every day, as well as a picture taking scrum whenever they ventured outside of the house.” He said.

Adding to the chaos factor, one of the team’s handbikes, hand biking is a paralympic sport, did not meet competition requirements.

Conlon said: “This became our next major challenge as the ones we were looking at buying would’ve cost around £7,000, and with no time to fundraise we had to call people from all over the UK and abroad.  Eventually a really amazing group, Quest 88, in Birmingham gave us one very cheaply and shipped it over from France, paying for most of it themselves.  Another main job was translating as they all spoke French but no English.”

The team received no support from their home country as far as paperwork and preparation for the games was concerned.

“A lot of the bigger teams such as Great Britain, USA and China, all have a group of people dedicated to ensuring entry forms and paperwork are completed. However, small countries like Burkina Faso simply don’t. This was often a challenge as we didn’t know the answers to some of the more complicated questions, and a lot of the forms should have been completed and submitted before they arrived and hadn’t been, but we got there in the end!” He said.

Essex locals followed suit, and the team stayed at a Salvation Army hostel in Sudbury for two nights, before three of the male athletes went on to stay with Liam. Two of the female athletes stayed with French- speaking nuns in Brentwood who made the women dinner and looked after them.

Conlon said: “I had no idea how much of a community there was in the UK before they arrived, there were so many people involved in helping them, and the athletes loved everyone they met. Wherever they went there was a mob of people wanting to take photographs, and everyone welcomed the team with open arms.”

Liam Conlon with Burkina Faso's Paralympic team at the closing ceremony

Although Conlon doesn’t think the squad he looked after will make the Rio Olympics in 2016, he continues to support and develop disabled sports in Burkina Faso.

According to Furman University research, investment in sporting infrastructure worldwide can help to give young people an opportunity to gain scholarships or can help spread educational methods such as AIDS awareness programmes in South Africa.

Stephen Linter who conducted the research said: “Sport stresses core values such as fair play, cooperation, sharing and respect. These values, whether we notice it or not, carry over into our daily lives.”

Unfortunately individual efforts are not enough to change the lives of disadvantaged athletes, but there are other UK organisations who offer support in less economically developed nations.

Government charity UK Sport invests worldwide to get young people from developing nations participating in sports.  Their initiative, International Inspiration, was promised by Lord Coe, “to reach young people all around the world and connect them to the inspirational power of the games so they are inspired to choose sport”, and continues to develop after the Olympics.

A UK sport spokesperson said: “International Inspiration is a seven year project that aims to enrich the lives of 12 million young people around the world.  It has helped develop educational and training resources that will impact millions more in years to come.”

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