MOSCOW, Russia (June 21, 2014) – The opening ceremony of the 5th World Para-Taekwondo Championships featured a range of acts and entertainments, but the event that bought the house down was a para-taekwondo demonstration by a six-man team from Morocco.
However, their show was not the only wonder. Due to the prejudices facing para-athletes, many attendees at the championships faced considerable struggles to participate - but perhaps none more so than the boys from Morocco.
For years, this cheerful, extrovert team – who, on the evening before the championships, raised laughs with their noisy appreciation of a belly dancer performing in the restaurant of their Moscow hotel – found their efforts to attend a para-taekwondo championship thwarted by misfortune, miscommunication and plain old lack of cash.
“We did not know about the (first para-taekwondo championships, which took place right after the world championships) in Azerbaijan in 2009,” said Abdennour El-Faydeni, who is competing in kyorugi as well as demonstrating. “Morocco took a team of 24 able-bodied athletes, but not even one or two disabled people.”
In 2010 problems familiar to many para-athletes – lack of funds and federation issues - prevented the Moroccans from attending that year’s championship in St. Petersburg, Russia. For the 2012 championships in Santa Cruz, Aruba, the team went so far as to obtain travel visas, but were eventually stymied for lack of cash. And for the 2013 championships in Lausanne, Switzerland, they did not have time to get a team together due to communications error.
A key barrier to accessing funds has been lack of Olympic recognition.
“We tried to talk to the federation of sports in Morocco, but they said because taekwondo is not in the Paralympics it does not exist!’” Abdennour recalled. “I said, ‘It exists! It is your fault that you don’t know about it!’”
Finally in 2014, their luck changed.
They were invited to the neighboring country of Tunisia – to which they could afford the relatively cheap air fares - where they conducted a show that proved a hit. Another invitation, to demonstrate at the African Championships, brought them to the attention of WTF President Chungwon Choue.
Choue arranged funds for the demonstration team’s flight and accommodation in Moscow, and the Russian organizing committee donated free transport. “This is our best year!” enthused team member Faycal Lahsaini.
Given the trials and tribulations they have undergone, it is hardly surprising that the team do not like to use the common terms “disabled” or “impaired” to describe themselves. Their preferred nomenclature is evident in the name of their organization they founded in 2012: the Association of Challenge and Persistence for Persons with Special Abilities.
“We are ambassadors for all people of special abilities,” said team member Adil Maddoud.
“We want to show their abilities to all people, not just to people with special abilities,” added Coach Hichan El-Allassi. “And we want to show them to all persons – like mothers and fathers – to show that they do not have to keep them in their houses, they should show them to the world.”
That mission is very much in line with the thinking of the father of Moroccan para-taekwondo, Aziz Smaili.
“I saw many disabled people in the streets, and I tried to find a way to make them happy, to include them in society,” said Smaili, a taekwondo coach.
After including para-athletes in taekwondo training programs in the late 1990s, he founded the demonstration team in 1998. “Through shows, we can show the abilities of these people to the public,” Smaili, who has also authored books on poomse and kyorugi for para-athletes, said.
But is there any way to change the perception toward para-taekwondo athletes in Morocco?
“It was many years before our dreams to be included in a para-taekwondo championship came true,” said Abdennour. “So now, our hope is to include Para-taekwondo in Tokyo in the 2020 Paralympics. That will be a big message.”