Flying start for Dubai World Para Athletics Championships
▶ British Paralympian has dominated the T34 class since she broke nine world records almost a decade ago
Athletes pushed off in wheelchairs and hurled the discus as the action began in Dubai at the World Para Athletics Championships.
The games opened on Thursday with heats for the 400m, 100m, discus and shot put as thousands of athletes competed in the qualifying rounds at the Dubai Club for People of Determination.
Maclean Dzidzienyo, an athlete from Ghana, watched to get a sense of the track and venue hours before his 100m event. “I’m here to warm up and get conditioned before my race,” said Dzidzienyo, who races in a wheelchair, having contracted polio at birth.
As he watched the athletes set off on wheelchairs down the track, he moved as if in synch with the men on the field.
“I feel the rhythm, I watch how they first push out, how they move,” he said.
“It’s a tough field and I need to reduce at least a second from my time for a place in Tokyo.”
Most athletes are targeting a top-four finish to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics next year.
An accountant in a sports club in Accra, Dzidzienyo said para-athletics was integral to his life. He has been with the national team for the past eight years.
“Sports is a voice for the voiceless, it has given me confidence,” he said. “It has made me who I am today.”
Athletes in para-athletics are classified according to physical ability, since each track and field sport has different demands.
Eleni Anousaki, a coach from Greece, said athletics, swimming and power lifting were among the nation’s top para-sports.
“We have top athletes who aim to get medals and for others it is about taking part in a world competition,” she said.
“With more participation and contests, society is becoming more friendly and open over the last few years.”
More than 1,400 athletes from 122 countries will compete for top honours in 172 events in Dubai over the next eight days.
Five-time Paralympic champion Hannah Cockroft has spent her life proving people wrong.
Growing up in Yorkshire, she was told not to play sports.
Instead, the Briton has powered past prejudice to earn the nickname Hurricane Hannah for the records she has smashed.
This includes 10 world titles in races from 100 metres to 1,500m in the T34 wheelchair sprint classification for athletes with cerebral palsy.
She is now in Dubai for the World Para Athletics Championships, which began on Thursday and will run until next Friday.
“When I was growing I had so many people up say, ‘Hannah you can’t do this, Hannah you can’t do that’. I don’t like being told that I can’t do something,” said Cockroft, 27, who tried wheelchair racing for the first time at the age of 15.
Steadfast in her battle to face the ill informed head-on, she has dominated the T34 class since she broke nine world records in 2010.
“I was told that sport wasn’t for me and I shouldn’t be a part of it – now I’m a Paralympian and a professional athlete, so sport is for anybody if they want to try it.”
Her mother pushed back when authorities recommended that
Cockroft be sent to a school for the disabled instead of the mainstream school her brothers attended.
She recalled how she was eventually accepted after facing “massive barriers”.
“Once I was there, they didn’t want me to join PE lessons, which is why I always stayed away from sport until I was a teenager,” she said.
Tackling other people’s perceptions of disability also coloured her own experiences of wanting to fit in instead of being viewed as different.
Two heart attacks at birth left her with brain damage and her underdeveloped feet and legs caused mobility and balance problems.
Sport helped Cockroft to claim her own space.
“It made me accept my wheelchair a lot more,” she said.
“I wanted to walk to be like everybody else. I was scared of my wheelchair. Sports showed me wheelchairs are cool, they are acceptable and actually make you much more independent.”
The accolades have not quenched her thirst for gold.
Cockroft comes into the World Para Athletics Championships after finishing second for the first time in her sporting career last year.
“I didn’t really enjoy the experience,” she said about being handed the silver medal in the T34 100m at the 2018 World Para Athletics European Championships in Berlin.
In Dubai, Cockroft will compete in the 100m and 800m as part of a 43-strong British para-athletic track and field team.
She is determined to reclaim the top spot.
“I love the feeling of going across the line first,” she said.
She said parents must encourage children with disabilities to take up a sport.
“Sport is massively important for people with disabilities,” she said.
“It teaches you a lot of skills, how to communicate with people, teamwork and may help you travel the world.
“It has made me a lot stronger and allowed me to do things I never thought I would be able to do.”
Her mother pushed back when authorities recommended Cockroft be sent to a school for the disabled
Athletes in the men’s 100m T54 at the Dubai 2019 World Para Athletics Championships
Hannah Cockroft celebrates after setting a new world record in the Women’s 100m T34 at the 2017 IPC World ParaAthletics Championships in London