Cheering the Athletes, Booing the Government. HSG from London, UK, 09-09-2012
Third from the end on the western side, the full-size Haitian flag occupied a very prominent position among those of the 164 nations represented in the Olympic stadium for the ten days of London’s Paralympic Games (August 29th-September 9th). It was some compensation for the commercial break that interrupted the entry of the national teams during the Opening Ceremony on August 29th, just as we reached “H” and Haiti.
However, Haiti’s first ever Paralympic team, all three of them, did their country proud and experienced something as yet unique – an 80,000-seat Olympic stadium filled to the roof trusses, cheering those that came last almost as vociferously as those who won medals. “It’s just been amazing,” said handcyclist Leon Gaysli, a spinal cord victim of the January 2010 earthquake, which killed his wife and eight children. Most other athletes- many from the most difficult circumstances in countries in which disability is all too often regarded as a contagious disease- have said the same, more than one noting that the British public, who made this the first Paralympic Games sellout by snapping up all 2.7 million tickets on offer, deserve a gold medal for cheering and clapping.
Malcolm Wallace, a UK coach invited to coach the Haitians during their one-month stay in Britain, has coached athletes at three previous Paralympic Games. “London 2012 has been different. The people have wanted the Paralympians here,” he says. “The only ones who got booed here are the government,” he says, referring to the loud jeering that greeted George Osborne, Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer (Treasury chief), when he turned up at the stadium to present a set of medals.
Osborne is unpopular for something Haitians know all about – savage public spending cuts, which include individual assessments of all disabled people receiving the Disability Living Allowance (DLA), a grant that many British athletes said made their participation in sport possible. Given government attitudes to disability in Haiti (see Haiti Support Group webpage, frontpage), public booing of government officials might be a tradition Haitian Paralympians may care to take home with them and apply liberally.