Last year’s IPC Swimming World Championships that took place at Kings Park Aquatic Centre in Durban was a major feather in the cap of Disability Sport South Africa (DISSA). However, the actual logistics of the event posed a number of challenges for DISSA.
The event was run as a joint operation between DISSA and Swimming SA. And although Swimming SA has managed a number of international events at the venue - Durban has hosted the FINA World Cup three years in succession – this was the first time it organised an international event for disabled swimmers. The Kings Park Aquatic Centre itself boasts world class facilities, so the challenges were more in terms of transport and accommodation. This is according to Dave Norman, former Chief Operating Officer of Swimming SA, who was appointed project manager for the event.
“I am a project consultant now, as I recently retired after 35 years of being involved in swimming administration, which included 10 years as CEO of Swimming SA.”
Great coup for DISSA
Norman says the event was unique to others he has managed because it was for disabled athletes. “It was also a prestigious and important competition for the swimmers, second only to the Paralympics. For this reason I thought it was a great coup for DISSA, and the country, to have pulled off. I believe that their presentation bid to host the event was fantastic. So I really did not want to let them down.”
Norman came onto the project after the bid and the partnership between the two sports bodies had been formed and was put in control. “Swimming SA obviously has technical expertise in running an event like this. I ran the logistics around the event as well as the technical facilities themselves. We had to ensure that the facility was technically up to international standards. This included aspects such as the pool itself and the timing equipment.”
While Norman says the venue is a disability-friendly one, unfortunately the rest of the country is still wanting in this regard and making parts disability friendly was not always easy.
“The event drew 550 athletes from 50 different countries, of which 150 were wheelchair users. So our first problem started with the airports. All the athletes flew into OR Tambo in Johannesburg, and caught connecting flights to Durban. Accompanying each team were also their doctors, physiotherapists and helpers. This added up to 900 people that had to be flown from Johannesburg to Durban, all of them arriving within three days from the 26th to 28th November.”
The first of Norman’s many challenges was, therefore, to get the teams to Durban. “We would have the scenario where 27 wheelchair users would arrive at OR Tambo at the same time. They would then have to get from the international terminal to the domestic terminal. As you know if you have been to the airport recently, this entails a 300m walk. The Airports Company of South Africa (ACSA) and the South African Police Service (SAPS) assisted us in moving these people from the one terminal to the other.
Queue for wheelchair users
“Our second problem was the airline’s ability to deal with more than three wheelchair users at a time, which is South African Airlines’ quota per flight. SAA facilitated this by creating a separate queue for wheelchair users and I was pleased that things proceeded quite smoothly.
“When the athletes arrived at Durban they had to be transported from the airport to their respective hotels. This proved a bigger problem as there is nothing in this country that can transport wheelchair users en mass. We investigated a number of avenues and in the end used 15-seater buses altered so that access could be gained with ramps. We also used trailers to carry the wheelchairs where we could. In this way we transported everyone to their hotels.”
Here Norman is reflective, commenting that in hindsight the use of nine different hotels around Durban was probably not the best idea. Of course, there are always things you realise after the event. This was one of them. The logistics of transporting athletes to and from their hotels was to prove a challenge.
At the same time the accommodation provided more challenges. Norman says hotels only adapt one percent of their rooms for the disabled. “So really, you find only three to four rooms in a hotel that are set up for people with disabilities. We solved this problem by using general rooms and removed the doors of the bathrooms so wheelchair users could manoeuvre in and out. The showers, which are above the bath in hotels, were also difficult to access. To overcome this, we had someone assist the athletes.
“There were also a few other problems, such as dining room access. We had cereals at breakfast, for example, on a counter too high for a wheelchair user to reach.”
In some rooms, the distance between the bed and the TV cabinet was too narrow to allow a wheelchair to pass. Outside, getting a bus to the entrance of the hotels was sometime difficult. “We had the traffic police, the SAPS and Metro police assisting us, but it takes time to load 15 athletes onto a bus, and it is amazing how many people do not understand this.”
While the event itself only started on 2 December, the athletes had arrived days earlier and had to be transported to three different training venues twice a day until the actual event.
“During the event itself, we also had to transport the athletes twice a day, in the morning for heats and in the evenings for finals. This was when we realised there was a major problem. The programme only finished at ten every night. This made it very difficult for the athletes to get to their hotels in time for dinner every night.
Solved the problem
“We solved the problem by providing dinners in a marquee at the actual event. This worked very well, except that swimmers who were not participating in the finals now had to be transported to the marquee for dinner and then back to the hotel.
“Fewer problems were experienced at the actual event. We built extra ramps as the pool access only had one narrow ramp. We removed the shower doors and put up curtains instead. We also had someone to assist turning the taps off because of the height of the tap.”
Norman says the challenges have all been documented in a report that is presently being edited. However, he is not sure if it will necessarily change things. “I do not think this will necessarily change the way airlines, airports and hotels operate. It is unfortunate, especially as a room that a disabled person uses, can also be used by an able bodied person. I think if we host another event of this nature in 10 years time, we will find things have not changed.
“However, I believe the event was still successful in terms of logistics. This was largely due to the athletes’ resilience. They are very accommodating; their attitude is such that they do not complain. As a result we had very few complaints.”
Many of the world’s top Paralympians, including our own Paralympic athletes, will begin their countdown to the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing at this year’s Visa Paralympic World Cup, which takes place in Manchester from 7 to 13 May.
The Visa Paralympic World Cup is one of the biggest multi-sport competitions for elite athletes with a disability outside the Paralympic Games.
The competition was created to provide an annual world-class multi-sport disability event, to give elite athletes more opportunity to compete with their international counterparts in between the four-yearly Paralympic Games and showcase elite disability sport around the world.
Swimming is once gain expected to draw a full house at the Manchester Aquatics Centre on Saturday 12th May, and athletics will provide the finale to the competition at the Manchester Regional Arena on Sunday 13th May.
UK double Paralympic swimming gold medallist, Natalie Jones, has made herself available for selection for the event. “I’ve already competed in two Visa Paralympic World Cups in Manchester and have enjoyed them very much.
“It would be great to compete in the 2007 event and I think it would be an extremely useful test against some of the world’s top swimmers as we prepare for the Paralympic Games in Beijing next year.”
Battling for medals
The Visa Paralympic World Cup is currently the only major international competition before Beijing 2008 for British athletes and swimmers, and will provide a crucial test for many of the top competitors who will be battling for medals in China next year.
The Visa Paralympic World Cup is hosted by the British Paralympic Association. It is sanctioned by the IPC and IWBF, and supported by Visa, BBC, UK Sport, Manchester City Council and the Northwest Regional Development Agency (NWDA).
Phil Lane, chief executive of the British Paralympic Association said, “The Visa Paralympic World Cup is a showpiece of some of the world’s best sporting talent and has become a major part of the disability sport calendar.”
Last year 352 athletes from 40 countries competed in the Visa Paralympic World Cup, which continued to build on the success of the inaugural competition in 2005.