As the Boks crash and Bafana Bafana burn, the rise of disabled sport continues to be one of the success stories of post-democratic SA. The creation of a Paralympic culture undoubtedly has something to do with the achievements of Oscar "Blade Runner" Pistorius and swimming star Natalie du Toit, but in the past 20 years we’ve become a nation that is tuned in to disabled sport.
Some generous sponsorship has raised awareness and once every four years many South Africans find themselves quietly admiring disabled athletes’ courage and star quality.
Despite taking place in a warren of categories and subcategories, the recently completed Rio Paralympics introduced a number of new stars and served to underline the claims of those already reasonably well known. Having won three medals in Beijing in 2008, Hilton Langenhoven, for example, won gold in the men’s long jump in Rio.
Langenhoven is an albino with impaired sight — indeed, he can see no further than about 3m. His disability is not insignificant: it conspired to rule him out of the men’s 400m semifinal heats in Rio, where he was disqualified for stepping outside his demarcated lane.
But come the long jump, he recorded a leap of just over 7m — not bad for an athlete some had been hinting was possibly past his best. (He is 33.)
"This gold means so much to me," he says. "There have been good times and there have been hard times, but I still always believed I could win gold."
Langenhoven went on to take silver in the T12 200m, his seventh Paralympic medal.
As if to mirror the many wonderful stories of SA athletes in the able-bodied Games in Rio (for example, 400m world record-breaker Wayde van Niekerk being coached by a grandmother, Ans Botha), members of SA’s Paralympic contingent were in no mood to be outdone. Take Charl du Toit. He won double gold, in the T37 100m and 400m, a remarkable achievement given his cautious expectations going into the Games.
Du Toit’s uncle, Johan, was shot in a robbery in June and died shortly before his nephew’s departure for Rio. While not referring to his uncle’s death specifically, Du Toit alluded to the tough times he and his family endured recently.
And after winning gold, he said: "We all took nicknames from songs that we liked — that was part of our motivation for the Games. Mine was ‘Smiling Lightning’."
Smiling Lightning made the best of his talent, his resolve and his family’s troubled times in first breaking the world T37 100m record in his heats in Rio, before going on to take his double gold. He dedicated his world record to his uncle.
Ilse Hayes, like Du Toit, is based at Stellenbosch. She grabbed silver in both the T13 100m and 400m, underlining the fact that, in the able-bodied and disabled Games alike, Afrikaans universities have played vital roles in providing good training regimes and coaching facilities.
Were it not for this institutional endeavour, one wonders quite how far SA’s medal haul in the two Games of Rio would have plunged. Imagine what it would be like if some of the traditionally English-speaking universities — the University of Cape Town and Wits, for instance — started to prioritise sport and disabled sport in the way recently done by the University of the North-West, for example, home of Caster Semenya and javelin silver medallist at Rio, Sunette Viljoen. (Van Niekerk is from the University of the Free State.)
While not every athlete and swimmer in SA’s campaign can be recognised, mention should be made in the Paralympic campaign of Dyan Buis who, like Du Toit and Hayes, also pulled in two medals. In his case, they were the T38 400m, where he ran a savvy race to take gold, and in the long jump, where he captured bronze. Afterwards Buis dedicated his medals to his young daughter, Jinne. He, too, can be counted as a Stellenbosch product, having trained at the Maties Helderberg Disabled Sports Club.
He won three medals at the 2012 Paralympics: silver in the T38 100m and 200m, and bronze in the long jump.
No story of the games is more heart-warming, however, than that of 14-year-old Ntando Mahlangu, whose legs are amputated below the knees. He has been on prosthetic limbs for only four years, but he won silver in the men’s T42 200m final, with two Great Britain athletes taking gold and bronze.
In the pool, Kevin Paul continued SA’s rich breaststroke tradition — think Penny Heyns and Cameron van der Burgh — by winning gold in the men’s 100m event. Coached by Graham Hill, who also coaches several able-bodied SA swimmers, Paul was a portrait of happiness when he turned after touching the wall, a just reward for the lonely hours spent swimming lengths of the training pool at ungodly hours and in all weather.
Disabled sport can, of course, have its funny side. Whether they play wheelchair basketball or run or jump, disabled sportsmen and women frequently have a healthily unsentimental attitude to their disability, not to mention a kind of wickedness that sees them able to laugh at things the able-bodied might think twice about. Indeed, there are always aspects of the Paralympics to make one smile, grin or laugh uproariously.
Sometimes, however, it’s the gentle human moments that lodge in the mind. Take Langenhoven, who doesn’t see the world in the kind of detail that is taken as normal by most of us. The only hiccup in a memorable evening after he’d won one of his medals was the fact that someone had to politely help him turn the SA flag he had been waving in celebration the right way round. Some laughed, but Langenhoven remained unfazed. He grew up asking those older and wiser than him two questions: why he was born an albino and why he was born partially blind. Such questions are almost impossibly difficult to answer, so much so that whether a flag is waved the right or the wrong way round fades into comparative insignificance.
While many athletes and swimmers headed to Rio with the sole purpose of raking in medals, not everyone could land a place on the podium. Take single sculls rower Sandra Khumalo, who is paralysed from the waist down as a result of a horrendous accident in 2005. The vehicle in which she was travelling, after a day’s work at an upmarket game lodge in Mpumalanga, rolled and trapped her beneath it. "When I was unable to feel anything in my legs I really started to panic," she has said elsewhere.
Her days have been given meaning and cheer with the fact that she loves the freedom of wide, open water. The water makes her feel independent, she says, free of daily duties and obligations, and she loves the space and silence of Victoria Lake in Germiston, her home training venue.
Despite her own hopes, and those of her Italian coach Marco Galeone and her para-rowing colleagues, Khumalo didn’t do as well as she would have liked in Rio. Braving pain and the cold of freezing early winter mornings to give it her all wasn’t quite enough to reel in a medal. Given her disappointment, one might have expected brief evidence of self-pity; but this would be to underestimate her, because self-pity is something she just doesn’t do.
Because of the accident all those years ago, Khumalo lost the use of her legs. But it signalled a new start rather than the beginning of the end. Her positive attitude makes her an example for all Paralympians and, one might say, able-bodied competitors too.