Saturday, May 22, 2010

Russia's winning Paralympics team keeps up the fighting spirit in an inaccessible society

From The NY Times. Pictured: Inspired by the Russian Paralympians’ success, Akzhana Abdikarimova, left, is beginning to work out with the team.

MOSCOW — The last of winter’s snow had not fully melted, but Sergei Shilov was already racing down a makeshift track, preparing for an array of summer athletic events. With his track and field training, he had barely had time to celebrate the two gold medals for cross-country skiing he won in Vancouver this year.

Having competed in almost every major athletic competition — both summer and winter — since the early 1990s, Mr. Shilov, 39, is one of Russia’s most decorated athletes. Yet few in this sports-obsessed country have ever heard of him.

Mr. Shilov, who is paralyzed from the waist down, is a member of Russia’s Paralympic team, which over the years has come to dominate high-level international competitions, even as the fortunes of Russia’s main national team have steadily declined.

While the Russian Olympic team brought home a paltry three gold medals from Vancouver — along with plenty of excuses — the Paralympians dominated, taking first place with 38 medals, including 12 golds, all without the lavish financing the government provides the main squad.

The feat, achieved half a world away from home, was all the more impressive considering that many disabled people here have a hard time just getting out the front door.

A lack of ramps and elevators and minimal access to public transportation means that only the hardiest of those with physical disabilities can leave their homes on their own, let alone keep up with the rigorous training regimen and travel schedule of a successful athletic team.

“We are used to fighting,” Mr. Shilov said. “Fighting, firstly, for our survival against staircases and other barriers.”

At a practice last month, Mr. Shilov and his teammates had to avoid cars and pedestrians walking dogs while doing laps in their wheelchairs in the parking lot that serves as their training center for summer sports.

Even getting to practice can be a workout. Athletes without cars have to hoist themselves up and down the stairs of subway stations and underground crossings.

The Moscow government’s attempts to make the city more accessible for disabled people in recent years “have turned out horribly,” said Natalya Bakhmatova, from the Moscow-based disabled rights group Perspektiva.

There are new ramps on street corners and in front of businesses, but many are either too narrow or too steep for wheelchairs, she said. A few buses are equipped with lifts for passengers in wheelchairs, but the bus drivers often refuse to operate them. Wheelchair elevators built in some new subway stations are frequently locked or out of order. And sirens or buzzers to alert the blind that it is safe to cross roads are little help in a city where many disregard traffic signals.

Since the Paralympic team’s success, the Russian government has vowed to do more to ease the lives of the country’s disabled, efforts that will be under scrutiny as Russia prepares to hold the 2014 Winter Olympics and Paralympics in Sochi, a resort town on the Black Sea.

“We have many disabled people in this country,” Mr. Shilov said. “Many who simply cannot leave their homes, to descend five to six steps, and who don’t know that it is possible to play sports or do anything else.”

Despite the obstacles — or perhaps because of them — Russia’s Paralympians have been wildly successful.

In the Winter Games, Russian athletes have excelled since the Soviet collapse first gave them the opportunity to leave the country for international competitions. In the Russian team’s first Paralympics in Albertville, France, in 1992, it came in third in the medal count, trailing the United States and Germany. Since then, the team has been shut out of the top three only once in the Winter Games.

“I don’t know specifically what the Russians are doing,” said Charlie Huebner, the chief of Paralympics for the United States Olympic Committee. “But obviously they’ve been doing a great job both developing their Nordic program and their biathlon program. Just unbelievably outstanding performances.”

Just over two decades ago, in the waning years of the Soviet Union, Mr. Shilov was a teenager coming to grips with the prospect of spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair after a car accident. He had always wanted to be an athlete, but in a country that idolized physical prowess, disabled people were anathema and rarely seen on the street, let alone in athletic competitions.

The Soviet collapse opened the door to competition, but with almost no support from the government or corporate sponsors, Russia’s early Paralympians supported themselves, relying on hand-me-down racing wheelchairs and other equipment from western European athletes they met at competitions, athletes said.

Success eventually prompted the government to take notice. After the team took first place in the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, then Russia’s president, signed a decree making cash prizes awarded by the government to medal winners equal for Olympians and Paralympians.

Also under Mr. Putin, a black belt in judo who has made athletic development a national priority, the government increased training stipends for disabled athletes, as well as money for foreign travel.

While the Olympic team’s poor performance in Vancouver this year was considered by many Russian leaders to be a national embarrassment, the Paralympians’ success provided some unexpected solace. At a ceremony for the Paralympians at the Kremlin in April, President Dmitri A. Medvedev gushed.

“It was so nice to watch and cheer for you, especially since the Olympics held earlier, evoked such ambiguous emotions,” Mr. Medvedev said. “You are all simply fantastic! It is just nice to say that once again.”

Mr. Medvedev acknowledged that disabled people had it rough in Russia, and he promised to allocate funds to develop rehabilitation centers and athletic infrastructure.

For now, however, the Moscow parking lot is sufficient for Akzhana Abdikarimova, who on a recent day was learning how to use the team’s bright yellow racing wheelchair. It was her third training session with the team, which allows those with no athletic experience, like Ms. Abdikarimova, to come to workouts.

“It is really interesting, of course, this feeling of freedom,” she said.

Just over a month ago, Ms. Abdikarimova, 26, was unemployed and wondering what to do with her life. She said she heard about the success of the Paralympic team in Vancouver and decided to give sports a try at her mother’s urging.

“We read about their successes, and were happy for them,” she said. “God willing, I will also have something to cheer about.”