Giving Paralympian medal winners their due

IT is 2016. Once again, Malaysian sportsmen and sportswomen will be competing against the best the world has to offer when the 2016 Summer Olympics - and Paralympics - kicks off in Rio De Janeiro.

This means that Malaysians will have a chance to shine and bring honour to the nation as medals are brought home, by Malaysians both able-bodied and those with disabilities.

However, one question remains – will the Government honour our heroes and heroines – especially those who win medals despite their disabilities – with their due when they return home?

It's very likely that we'll win medals. After all, Malaysia took home two medals at the London Paralympics in 2012, a silver by Hasihin Sanawi in the Men's individual recurve W1/W2 and a bronze by Muhammad Ziyad Zolkefli in the Men's Shot Put F20.

However, equality was not forthcoming in the aftermath of the London Paralympics in 2012, when those who won medals in the Paralympics then received rewards from the Government clearly inferior to those given out to Olympic medalists under the Sports Incentive Scheme (Shakam).

Under the scheme, Paralympics gold medal winners received a one-off RM300,000 payment, silver medal winners RM200,000 and bronze medal winners, RM100,000.

On the other hand, a gold medal winner at the London Olympics would have received a one-off RM1mil payment, while our silver and bronze medal winners received RM300,000 and RM100,000 respectively, as well as lifetime pensions of RM5,000, RM3,000 and RM2,000.

There was outrage when this was highlighted in 2012, especially after the Youth and Sports Minister at the time, Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek issued a statement on Sept 23 saying that the discrepancy was justified as the Paralympics was of a different competitive level compared to the Olympics.

The discrepancy was criticised by stakeholders who spoke up at the time for the rights of Malaysians with disabilities such as Malaysian Association for the Blind Accessibility executive Muhd Fairuz Abdullah.

He had been reported in 2012 saying Paralympic medal winners should receive a pension similar to their Olympic counterparts, stressing the financial needs of disabled athletes were greater than that of the able-bodied.

"A wheelchair user has to buy and maintain a wheelchair or other special aids such as modified cars and adaptive equipment," he said.

The outpouring of calls for justice – and the two medals won in London – ultimately led to a promise of equality made by Khairy Jamaluddin when he took over the reins of the Youth and Sports Ministry in 2013.

To his credit, one of Khairy's first acts of office was to announce that our medal winners in the Olympics and Paralympics would get the same awards under the Shakam scheme.

Indeed, this was repeated to my friend and colleague T. Avineshwaran when he met with Khairy at the end of 2015.

In that interview, Khairy pointed out that all Malaysian medal winners have been getting their fair due since 2013.

"There has been parity since 2013. I promised parity in Shakam for all medals, including the SEA Games, Asian-level games and world championships, which includes the Olympics," said Khairy.

He acknowledged that previously, Paralympics athletes only received 30% of what non-disabled medal winners received.

"I have already delivered my promise since 2013 and I will certainly deliver if we get a Paralympic gold. Those who win a gold medal in the Olympics will get RM1mil, and so will those who win gold at the Paralympics," said Khairy.

And this is something I really hope to see come September 2016 – all our Malaysian heroes getting their due.

Khairy and the Youth and Sports Ministry have made it this far. Can they cross the finish line with our Paralympics medal-winners? I look forward to finding out.

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