Rio 2016 Paralympics: Volunteers get hands on for inaugural para-triathlon

Volunteering was taken to a whole new level at the para-triathlon on Copacabana beach, writes Gary Meenaghan from Rio de Janeiro.
Mohammed Lahna, left, from Morocco and Stephane Bahier, right, from France are aided out of the water during the men's PT2 Triathlon competition of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at Fort Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, September 10, 2016. Bob Martin / EPA
Mohammed Lahna, left, from Morocco and Stephane Bahier, right, from France are aided out of the water during the men's PT2 Triathlon competition of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at Fort Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, September 10, 2016. Bob Martin / EPA

Volunteers are always the unsung heroes of any modern-day major sporting event, but at the 2016 Paralympic Games their role has been taken to a new level as para-triathlon requires them to enter the field of play and directly impact an athlete’s performance.

Argentine Augustin Bariloche was one of around 20 volunteers who last weekend worked as an exit swim handler during the debuting men’s and women’s para-triathlon. After four days of intense training – one day theory; three days practical – his task was to assist limb-deficient athletes out of the water at Copacabana Beach, help them over the sand and onto the blue carpet for the bike transition.

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Moroccan Mohammed Lahna, the only para-triathlete from the Arab world, is well aware that every second counts. He learnt the Portuguese word for “faster” and urged his handlers to move “rapidinho” as they carried him up the sand on Saturday.

“The athletes have their preferences, but we have rules and are told we must be fair,” Bariloche said.

“We can go fast, but must treat everyone the same and cannot run too fast. Concentration, technique and coordination, that’s what we were taught are the fundamentals of doing a good job.”

Lahna, who shaved his one leg to save a few more milliseconds, won bronze in the PT2 category after a 750-metre swim, 20-kilometre bike race and 5km run. While he had arrived with no personal expectations, he said he had never doubted the event itself would be a success on its Paralympics debut.

“I was 100 per cent certain it would succeed because it’s a very fun sport with a lot of suspense. My family in Morocco were following the race and were crying because I was fourth and fifth and then fourth again and then third. They were so emotional.

“It is not a normal sport, it affects a lot of aspects of your life, and I hope it is going to expand in the Arab world too,” said Lahna, who has competed twice in the Abu Dhabi Triathlon.

The Brazilians were clearly enjoying it. As Blink 182, U2 and Jorge Ben Jor blared from the speakers set up along the course, locals sacrificed valuable weekend beach-time to line the barriers and cheer on the competitors. They did so alongside royalty — Princess Margriet of Netherlands watched from the sidelines before handing compatriot Jetze Plat his gold medal in PT1.

“It’s been incredible,” Plat said. “There are so many people here cheering for us, also during the race it was amazing, so many people supporting us all. It was just a wall of noise.”

The two makeshift temporary stands were filled predominantly with flags from Great Britain, Japan and Canada. A woman screamed “U-S-A” repeatedly from a nearby apartment window as the United States enjoyed a clean sweep of the three female categories on Sunday. A pair of inflatable boxing kangaroos floated around the thronged sidelines.

“I’ve come from another sport, which is equestrian, and that has a great culture too, but wow, para-triathlon, what a ripper sport to be in,” said Australian Kate Doughty.

“It can be a bit overwhelming out there, when you hear all the screaming. I like to go into this kind of silent zone in my mind, but you definitely can’t do that here.

“There is so much noise, but all so supportive so you just have to do it and do it hard.”

Canoe sprint is the only other new sport at this year’s Paralympics after a vote by the International Paralympic Committee in 2010. The two new events beat out competition from badminton, golf, powerchair football, taekwondo and basketball for athletes with learning disabilities.

Yesterday, the heats and semi-finals of canoeing took place in front of an electric crowd at Rio’s Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, where 60 para-athletes, divided by gender and functional ability, competed in modified kayaks over six 200m sprint-style events.

“Athletes are athletes all over the world,” said Philip Craven, president of the IPC. “I congratulate them, but they trained like mad to do this so they are just delivering on the training. You have to have fun at whatever sport you’re doing and they’re having serious fun here, so it’s great.”

The canoe finals will take place on Thursday.

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Published: September 14, 2016 04:00 AM

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