South Sudan Wheelchair Basketball Team Hopes for Paralympics Berth
JUBA, South Sudan — At a basketball court in South Sudan’s capital Juba, the national wheelchair team is still practicing hard - despite only a glimmer of hope that a select few will get a last-minute chance to compete in London's upcoming Paralympic Games.
Wheelchair-bound basketball players race around a court in the sweltering evening heat. The players bear the scars of the ravages of war and poverty: limbs lost to land mines and bomb shrapnel, or twisted by polio.
The decades-long civil war from which the new nation of South Sudan emerged in July 2011 left a legacy of some 50,000 disabled people. It is why representation of the wheelchair basketball team in this year's Paralympic Games is so important.
Gatluak Kual Luak, president of the Wheelchair Basketball Association, said the dream of competing in London has kept the team together.
“If South Sudan wheelchair basketball appears or is seen in the Olympics, it will mean [a lot] not only to me, but it will mean [a lot] to the whole of the nation,” said Luak.
But the nation's Olympic dream is fading fast.
South Sudan fell short of forming the minimum five sports federations in time to become a full member of the International Olympic Committee.
South Sudan Minister of Sports Cirino Hiteng Ofuho said that despite a letter from President Salva Kiir to the IOC, hopes of raising South Sudan’s flag have disappeared.
“The appeal of the president was that 'yes, we are aware of these preconditions, but we are willing to work to fulfill them, but allow us, these are games that come every four years.'" said Ofuho.
The IOC recently relaxed its rules to let star South Sudanese marathon runner Marial Guor, who resides in the United States, compete under the Olympic flag.
Ofuho said he hopes the wheelchair basketball team can be squeezed into the Paralympics.
“One of our athletes is going to be, has been allowed by the IOC to participate. It came late, but we can still thank them,” said Ofuho.
Coach Nyambura Kenyi Gabriel said representing South Sudan abroad would be a huge boost for disabled people that often feel they have no future here.
"It will be very most important and great once we go and compete in the Olympics. So it will be very important for us, and it will be very important for the disabled people. Because it is said, disability does not mean inability. That means that they have also talent to compete in sport,” said Gabriel.
Gabriel says that until the team is allowed abroad, these courts will never be empty.