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     Volume 7 Issue 3 | January 18, 2007 |

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Cover Story

They Know They Can

Nader Rahman

"Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."
The Special Olympics Oath

There is something about the word special, a certain tenderness is attached to its usage and most people use it sparingly, they may say they like someone a lot, but they will think twice before saying someone is special. These days to say someone is special takes on a whole new connotation, but the interesting thing about it, is that it doesn't take any of the tenderness away. We live in the era of political correctness where euphemisms are no longer euphemisms, they are the standard, and possibly the greatest term to come out of it is 'special', because truly the intellectually disabled are nothing short of that. Their strength and determination is a testament to their attitude in life, and it shames those who are far more fortunate. They may not have the aptitude but they have the attitude.

Training for the 100 m sprint

Bangladesh is not known for its sporting achievements; in fact on the international stage the only sport of recognition we play is cricket, and even that is tricky as every win is followed by inconsistency. The next sport to get any attention is football and barring the SAARC victory there is nothing to shout about that brings us to all other sports, those do not really even deserve a mention. For a nation of 150 million it is quite interesting that we could not come up with a decent group of athletes, all we can do is every four years send an oversized team to the Olympics and the Commonwealth games, where we are routinely beaten in team events and knocked out in the first heats of the athletic events. Coupled with that is the odd ultra embarrassing moment, for example when one swimmer swims into another lane or when our athletes go missing, staying on illegally in the countries they have gone to participate in. In short there is nothing to write home about.

Ashraf ud Dowla

But all of that is about to change. Last year, a Bangladesh sporting delegation came back from China with a staggering 71 medals. Forty-seven participants competed in seven categories, aquatics, athletics, badminton, bocce, football, table tennis and cricket and they went on to win a mind boggling 32 Gold, 15 Silver and 24 Bronze medals. No, this was not the rebirth of Bangladeshi sport, it was the birth of the Special Olympics in Bangladesh, and the intellectually disabled showed the rest of the nation and the sporting fraternity how to get the job done. Their story is as inspirational, their feats incredible and they are the ones society shuns; those fixed notions about the intellectually disabled must be thrown out the window and the time has come for them to be celebrated not maligned.

One of the first and possibly their most loyal crusader is Ashraf ud Dowla, having been the Chairman of the Special Olympics since its inception in 1994. His story started off as most others do with an intellectually disabled child. In 1991 he heard of the first Special Olympics World Games and was determined to send some children from Bangladesh to the event. It was very personal for him and he took the challenge head on. He somehow managed to get an appointment with the then interim President of the country and hoped if he appealed to him for some funds the team could be sent to the Olympics. There he had a most unpleasant experience, an experience that showed him just how society treats and talks of the intellectually disabled. He walked out of the meeting vowing to arrange the funds himself and travel to the Olympics on his own steam. As it turned out he managed to take a team of five athletes to the World Games and although there was no official Special Olympics in Bangladesh at that time they managed to participate as an invitational team. His experiences there touched him immensely, it was there that he realised the power of sport. Those children who had nothing to look forward to and a lifetime of misery were running, jumping and playing like all other children their age. They were happy in a way he had never seen before, and he understood the purpose it gave to their lives and from then on he vowed to do as much as he could so that more special children from Bangladesh could participate in future games. His mind was made up and now all he had to do was work for it, since then he has dedicated his life to it.

Dowla says, “from the Special Olympics I got an invitation to form Special Olympics Bangladesh and it was to include people from more than just one school. If I did so then Bangladesh could participate in future Special Olympics as official members,” he goes on to say “I did not hesitate and started the process. By 1993 things were coming together, we registered in Bangladesh at the end of '93 and got out official recognition from the Special Olympics in July 1994.” At first things seemed to be going well, after getting the official seal of approval he next needed to gather a group of athletes that would compete in the World Games the following year. He managed to put a team together and then they set about practising at the Dhaka University grounds, an experience that was anything but pleasant. He says “the grounds which we practised on were stripped of grass and uneven and honestly it was a bit of a threat to the children's well being, but testament to them they bravely continued practising, nothing could keep them from trying.”

Into 1995 they were still desperately short of funds and Dowla got an appointment with Sadek Hossain Khoka, the then sports minister. Dowla says “I went there to tell him my problems, we had no money to send a team and even practising for the Olympics was costing them money. I asked for a reasonable sum to cover our expenses, it was sum that the National Sports Council could requisition quite easily. He seemed to sympathise with me, but when it came to giving me money he offered a sum so small that it was embarrassing.” Dowla walked out of there after refusing to accept a sum of money that small and insignificant, and it was back to square one as they would have to fund the trip themselves. They scraped enough money together to send a small team to the Special Olympics in the States and the athletes responded with a slew of medals. With semi professional training, very limited funds and every obstacle on their way Bangladesh came back with 19 medals, six Gold, seven Silver and seven Bronze. It was beyond their wildest dreams and back in Bangladesh they did not get so much as a reception to honour their achievements. This has constantly been one of the factors holding them back, people don't seem to accept the Special Olympics as a legitimate sporting event, any medals won there are shrugged off as not really medals at all. With what the rest of Bangladesh achieves at the highest sporting level one should rightly think these athletes should be given the respect they deserve. But that is a challenge every intellectually disabled person meets in a country like Bangladesh where they are ridiculed and turned into social misfits, their challenge is to command respect.

From L to R, Farhana Tanzia Ithu, Sultana Mushfiqua Phul and Label Mohammed Jabed.

While Mr Dowla is the main man behind the administrative side of the Special Olympics Bangladesh, there have been countless others who have sacrificed their time and dedicated themselves to the cause as well. One of those people is a woman known by only one name, Shanchita. She only found out about the Special Olympics movement in the mid nineties and with a full time job in Sonali Bank she never got around to helping or doing anything for them. By '97 after associating herself with the organisation she became a Director. In the same year she transcended the official boardroom role of a director to become a coach. She says “naturally after becoming a director I was happy, but I always felt that I could do more for the cause. Then all of a sudden I realised that I could be a coach as well, I had a degree in physical education and aside from looking after things from the pen and paper point of view, I could physically work with the children. It was a move that took more than a few people by surprise.” She was soon coaching almost every one of the athletes in one way or another. She performed so well that by the time the '99 Special Olympics rolled by she was the Athletics coach as well as a director. It was a role she cherished, “I was never happier than when I was coaching the children, and it taught me the true virtue of patience. Anyone who has coached or even helped an intellectually disabled child knows the value of their smiles.” Shanchita says.

What isn't commonly known about Shanchita is that she is a high achiever herself; she has written four books and up until recently performed all her Special Olympics activities as well as continuing her full time job. Her house has a large library where she keeps her mind sharp as one can easily understand by talking to her. She is well spoken and precise in what she says and one can see why the athletes take to her , with her easy demeanour.

Receiving awards at a specially held ceremony for the Special Olympics.
At the airport on their way to Shanghai, China.

By 1999 things were a little easier for Special Olympics Bangladesh. For the third time Ashraf Ud Dowla managed to get a meeting with the government and after two bad experiences he was braced for a third. Special Olympics Bangladesh may have been doing well on the field but they still needed financial assistance and he met with Sheikh Hasina to see how he could arrange some more funds, possibly from the government so that they could attend their second Olympics. “The meeting with Sheikh Hasina was one I will never forget. By the time I finished telling her our story she was in tears and all she asked was for me to name a figure and she would give it.” says Dowla. While he held back from asking for a specific figure she said that it was June and right before the budget so it was a bad time to give out money and said she would contact him soon. The following day he got a call from the PM's office saying a cheque for Tk 20 lakh was ready for him and all he needed to do was pick it up.

With the money secured and dedicated coaches backing the team up they left for the States again and came back with another massive haul of medals. 21 Gold, 9 Silver and 6 Bronze, for the second tournament in a row they proved just how good they could be. When they came back from the games no less than three ministers were at the airport to meet them and they got a lavish reception with Saber Hossain feeding each and every one of them sweets himself. It was vindication in a small way, but still the public at large did not know anything about them and there was feeling that those medals were really not worth much. To this day they fight such ignorance.

Shewli Shathi

The 2003 Special Olympics in Ireland proved to be yet another fruitful outing for Bangladesh. With 10 Gold, 6 Silver and 6 Bronze they proved that they were the most consistent Bangladesh sporting team to take part in international tournaments. That year Shanchita was made the Head Coach and as she explains it was more than a handful for her to manage, “That was the toughest job in my life, aside from training and coaching the athletes I was also in charge of a lot of administrative work and it was very tiring but eventually hugely successful” she says. There are stories galore about just how tough it was to keep up with the athletes like for example when Golam Gaus went missing just before the final of the walking event. As it turned out he went by himself to see Mohammad Ali who was in the stadium at the same time. “When he went missing I was a nervous wreck, firstly I told the events committee to delay the start of the event so that I could find him. After finding him, he finally took part in the event and even went on to win a medal! But not before giving us a scare” Shanchita says.

The Special Olympic World Games in 2007 was going to be yet another tricky event for Bangladesh. As it so turned out there was to be emergency throughout the year and for the first time they would have to ask a caretaker government for the money to travel to China for the games. After three successful tournaments in a row, Ashraf ud Dowla was determined to send a large team to the games so that as many people as possible could take part and hopefully bring back some medals for the nation in our time of trouble. “We asked for help from the National Sports Council, but all they gave us was lip service. Aside from that there is a rule that athletes must train for a certain number of days before coming to the Olympics. With the games in October, we had to arrange a three month intensive camp rather that our usual twice a week practise which goes on through the year” Dowla says. What they decided was a bold step, to use the facilities at BKSP for three months and prepared the first residential camp for intellectually disabled athletes. This was completely different from what they normally do, there would be no parents with the children and it was completely dedicated to their training with one eye on a great performance in Shanghai.

Playing in the Finals against India

Things were not going according to plan as the stay in BKSP was extremely expensive and with no cash injection from the government or NSC it seemed like they would have to pack up and simply leave the training camp, the Olympic was a long way away. As it so happened then Mr. Dowla got a call from Grameenphone. “I got a call from Shuvashish Priya Borua and Debashis Roy in Grameenphone and after I met with them I knew something special had happened. They touched my heart and firmly told me to continue with the camp and our preparations. They said they would take care of everything, and I am proud to say that is exactly what they did. They are now our partners in the Special Olympics and this year nothing would have happened without them” Dowla says. After being two days from shutting down the camp in BKSP continued and with complete assistance from Grameenphone they went forward to the Special Olympics World Games in Shanghai with their largest delegation ever with 47 participants.

The games proved to be Bangladesh's greatest sporting success as they brought home a gargantuan haul of medals. Along the way they created a world record or two, the cricket team posted a score of 358 in 20 overs along the way to winning the Gold Medal. There were to be 32 Gold Medals along with 16 Silver and 24 Bronze, it was a bumper harvest of medals for the fourth Olympics in a row. Everyone associated with the trip says the training camp was one of the main reasons behind their success. Label Mohamamed Jabed, caption of the cricket team and the leading wicket taker in the tournament says “it was the training camp that did this. They went through a tough time to train but it was worth it. I even uprooted my entire nail there, but kept on playing because I wanted to do something for my country.” Farhana Tanzia Ithu a fellow athlete shares the same view “the training I what made me perform so well. The competition was tough but I managed”. Sultana Mushfiqua Phul who won gold in Table Tennis says “I want gold because I tried and tried. I did not want to let down my coaches, since they tried so hard to train me, I had to try that hard to win.”

Trying the Shot Put

While the sheer volume of medals won should make anyone stand up and take notice, some of the personal stories were even more impressive. Sultana only started playing Table Tennis three months before the games! And she then went on to win gold, there are some amazing stories from some even more amazing people and at the end of the day all they want is a little recognition and most importantly, respect. Hasina Akhter, mother of Label explains the parents' biggest worries “what all of us (parents of intellectually disabled children) worry about is what will happen to our children after we die. As long as we are alive we can and will take care of them. But after us we have no idea what will become of them. I beg the government to do something, to help us take care of them. If not people will take everything we gave them away, that is what happens. All I ask is that they are taken care of after our deaths, I worry about that every day.” We may celebrate them in their time of victory but how society treats them after that praise is even more important.

Shewli Shathi is barely out of her teens, intellectually disabled and the daughter of a rickshaw puller. She overcame every obstacle that came her way to qualify for the Special Olympics and in China a thousand miles away from her one room house in Ganderia she won three medals two silver and one bronze, all in badminton. Her father still pulls a rickshaw and she still lives in abstract poverty and she is living testament to the spirit within the intellectually challenged. “When I won the silver in badminton I was just a point away from the gold. What I would do for that one point now, all I wanted was to win a gold medal for my country. I would have made them proud, I just wanted to represent Bangladesh with honour. I wish I could get that point,” she says. Spirit like that is why they are called special. The Special Olympics oath is “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt” and our team lived up to it, in some grand style.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008