At 8.15am on Valentine’s Day, a gunshot rang out in the silent streets of George.
It signalled the start of one of South Africa’s most remarkable annual events: the Outeniqua Wheelchair Challenge (OCC). A record 625 disabled participants were packed behind the starting lines, compared to just 27 who competed in the first ever race in 2002. South African Paralympic hero Ernst van Dyk warmed up for the 42.2 km wheelchair marathon with athletes from France, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
People aged two to an impressive 95 flocked from all nine provinces to take part in the half-marathon, 10 km timed race, and 7 km fun race. There were sleek racing wheelchairs, hand cycles, tricycles, buggies, ordinary wheelchairs, and every other imaginable type of mobility assistive device. Despite the untimely rain, it was a sight to behold.
Unique among sporting events, the OCC welcomes not only world-class professional athletes but ordinary people. 85 percent of this year’s participants came from disadvantaged communities. “[The race] really reaches people who wouldn’t get the chance otherwise,” commented van Dyk during the communal ‘pasta party’ on Friday evening.
The results were as startling as the event itself. Sure favourite van Dyk was well in the lead during the first lap of the marathon course but a puncture cost him precious time and French athlete, Denis Lemeunier, was first to cross the finishing line in a soggy 1:42:48, followed closely by his fellow countryman, Alain Fuss.
In a race that is more about empowerment and inclusion than simply winners and losers, the actual results were almost forgotten in the celebrations afterwards. Hot corn cobs and steaming plates of potjiekos were handed out to all participants while the SA Dance Team demonstrated wheelchair ballroom dancing when sunlight finally broke through the clouds. Records broken, expectations exceeded, personal challenges attained – the atmosphere of joy was palpable.
Event director Esther Watson thanked the major sponsors Vodacom, Parmalat SA and Kempston Truck Hire as well as numerous smaller sponsors around the country and the 150 volunteers who had contributed their time and skills. “Everybody is just working together,” she enthused. Watson won the Shoprite Checkers/SABC2 Woman of the Year Award in 2006 for her role in founding and promoting the event.
“When we started this race in 2002, all we had was a dream,” explained Watson, “but if you believe strongly enough in any dream, you can always reach it ... Never ever stop dreaming. Never ever stop making changes in people’s lives.”