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Obsolete chairs stunt para-athletes

MANILA, Philippines — Philippine Paralympic Committee board member Kiko Diaz is appealing to the PSC for assistance in fast-tracking the procurement of modern wheelchairs to replace the crumbling seats that stunt the progress of differently-abled athletes representing the country in international competitions.

Despite the obsolete wheelchairs, the Philippines garnered 20 golds, 20 silvers and 29 bronzes to finish fifth overall at the recent 9th Asean Paragames in Kuala Lumpur. The showing was a marked improvement from the haul of 16 golds, 17 silvers and 26 bronzes for seventh place in the 2015 edition in Singapore.

The PSC distributed P2,718,750 in incentives to the Paragames medalists in awarding rites attended by PSC chairman Butch Ramirez, POC president Jose Cojuangco, Jr., PSC commissioner Arnold Agustin, POC secretary-general Steve Hontiveros, Paragames chef de mission Ral Rosario and Diaz at the PhilSports Arena last week.

Diaz said the 12-man wheelchair basketball team took the bronze medal at the Paragames with dilapidated seats that had welded parts, patched up joints and tape to keep screws from loosening. “It looked like our chairs came from a junk shop,” he said. “Thailand played with chairs that weighed about 8 kilos while ours averaged 18 kilos. That meant we had to make twice or thrice the effort to get our chairs moving compared to the Thais who won the gold medals in both the 12-man and 3x3 events. We could’ve done a lot better with chairs made out of lightweight material like Kevlar. Pushing our heavier chairs took a toll.”

National wheelchair basketball coach Vernon Perea said a top-of-the-line chair costs about $6,000 but the Thai-made version is $1,500 weighing 8 to 10 kilos. Countries like Myanmar and Laos equip their para-athletes with modern, lighter chairs than the Philippines. Perea said there is a pending request for the PSC to purchase 12 wheelchairs for basketball.

Perea said with the condition of the wheelchairs, it may be futile to participate in the Asian Games qualifier in Thailand in March. There will be 10 teams playing wheelchair basketball at the Asian Paragames in Jakarta next year. Host Indonesia has an automatic slot while Japan, Korea and Iran booked tickets at the Asia Oceania Championships in Beijing last week. The six remaining slots will be decided in the March qualifier with eight countries signifying early interest to participate – China, Thailand, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Chinese-Taipei, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Iraq.

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Perea said if the new wheelchairs are brought in ahead of the March competition, the Philippines should be able to qualify. He said sending at least two players to coach Mike Frogley’s wheelchair basketball institute in Canada for training would be a big boost to the team’s chances.

Wheelchair basketball player and polio-stricken Choy Mingarine, 45, said some of the team’s chairs weigh up to 21 kilos. A few chairs were donated by the US, averaging 15 kilos in weight and one used seat scaling 12 kilos was given by Mingarine’s Thai friend in 1998. Most of the chairs were fabricated locally using heavy metal. The average age of the chairs is eight years old.

The country’s sad state of equipment made the news in Kuala Lumpur when boccia player Ana Leda fell off her chair and landed on her side during practice as the foot rest broke. Leda, who has a spinal condition, hurt her knee in the fall but insisted on competing after a rest of 45 minutes. The situation was exacerbated when organizers ruled out five of the Philippines’ 12 competition boccia balls as sub-standard. Organizers allowed teams to use their own balls and play in electric wheelchairs. The Philippines didn’t only bring outlawed balls but also worked with manual wheelchairs.

Leda’s wheelchair was repaired by organizers who put a wooden plank to replace the broken foot rest. The makeshift plank was screwed on and Leda competed in a chair that was a patchwork job. The Philippines failed to bag a medal in boccia’s seven events at the Asean Paragames.

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