The Jordan Olympic Committee visits the Jordan Paralympic Committee to meet a determined group of role models battling the stigma surrounding ‘disabled’ sport
It doesn’t take you long to realise that the word ‘disabled’ has no place in the Jordan Paralympic Committee (JPC).
Located in the heart of Al Hussein Youth Sport City, the JPC has been breaking down the sporting barriers for Jordanians with disabilities since 1981 to become recognised as one of the leading organisations of its kind in the world.
And these days, something very special is happening there.
Jordan has no less than 10 athletes placed in the world’s top 10 for their respective sports, and with the Rio Paralympics just over 18 months away, it is no wonder that the JPC is a fun place to be right now.
But it has not been an overnight success story. Far from it, in fact. It is a journey of blood, sweat and tears 33 years in the making since HRH Prince Raad bin Zaid launched the Committee in 1981. His Royal Highness is still at the forefront today as hands-on President.
And one man who has been there since 1983 is Secretary General, Jasser Al Nuwairan. He has seen an incredible transformation in paralympic sport globally, and particularly in Jordan where he says it is helping to smash the stigmas surrounding people with disabilities.
"We have a big 12 months for paralympic sport because we have a good chance to send 14 athletes to Rio,” said Jasser. "The actual Paralympic year is easy because it is about training camps and preparation, but the year before is the busiest with athletes trying to qualify, so 2015 will be a busy year.”
Jasser has seen it all when it comes to paralympic sport, and smiles when he remembers the letter received in 1984 inviting Jordan to send names to compete in the first Paralympics in England. It’s all very different these days.
"Back then it was all about recreation but now it is serious, elite sport,” he said. "In a short space of time it has become huge. It is very hard now to qualify for the Paralympics as the standard is so high. But we are working hard to prepare for sending our biggest ever delegation to Rio.”
After a successful Asian Games which saw a record nine medals won, Jordan now expects to send athletes to compete for Rio medals in powerlifting, athletics and table tennis. In future Paralympics, you could see Jordanians also compete in shooting following a new initiative launched to encourage former soldiers to take up the sport.
"We are working closely with the Injured Army Veterans Association to identify talent that could become top class shooters,” said Jasser. "We expect to be working with up to 30 new shooters in 2015.”
Jasser pointed out that over 500 athletes now regularly compete in paralympic sport in Jordan’s 12 clubs – five for people with physical disabilities, five for the deaf and two for the blind - with around 25 identified as elite and training in the excellent facilities at the Committee. Wheelchair basketball and goal ball is also played here.
One of those elite athletes is Maha Barghouti, still the only Jordanian to win an Olympic or a Paralympic gold medal after she picked up gold in Sydney, 2000, for the T1 wheelchair table tennis category.
She has become an iconic figure with a smile as big as her popularity and even at 51, she sees that her position is much more than about sport which continues to make her hugely ambitious.
"I understand my responsibility as a role model for the young and I am fully aware that by achieving in sport, it can be a source of inspiration for people who feel that their disability stops them from succeeding,” she said.
"There is no disability in sport. We are all athletes here and train as hard to try and be the best we can. Disabled is not a word we recognise in these four walls.”
Maha’s story is inspirational. A former world record 200m wheelchair racer – she broke the record in 1995 in Germany – she decided to switch to table tennis where she is still ranked second in the world for her class.
"Don’t let a disability stop you being a champion,” she said as an inspirational message to the youth. "Competing in sports gave me a life. And that's what I urge parents with disabled children to do.
"When any disabled person gains confidence and has the support of the family, they can easily convince others that they are not a burden," she added.
So as we left the group of world champions, world record holders and Olympic medal winners following an enlightening visit, it was clear to understand that the role of these athletes transcends well beyond sport. They are society’s champions who have earned our respect and admiration.