Para Power at the Commonwealth Games

Ali Jawad from England shows how to celebrate after successfully bench pressing 161kg.

13 April 2018 

HTBS contributor William O’Chee doesn’t have far to go to witness an extraordinary display of Para Powerlifting at the Commonwealth Games on Australia’s Gold Coast.

Occurring every four years, and spaced between successive Olympics, the Commonwealth Games is an opportunity for countries throughout the Commonwealth to send teams to compete in a wide range of sports. This year’s Commonwealth Games is on the Gold Coast, an hour south of Brisbane in Queensland, Australia.

The 71 competing nations range from the mighty India, down to tiny countries such as Niue, Kiribati and territories like Gibraltar 23 sports are on offer on the Gold Coast, although sadly rowing is not one of them.

Rowing was included at the first British Empire Games, as they were then known, in Hamilton, Ontario in 1930, but were omitted from the subsequent Empire Games in London in 1934.

Rowing is now an optional event, having been included in 1938, from 1950 to 1962, but they last appeared in Edinburgh in 1986.

The omission of rowing is something of a tragedy, at least in sentimental terms, given the fact that Britain gave the world the sport of rowing as we know it. Moreover, the newly opened Wyaralong rowing course, an hour away, would have been a wonderful venue for international competition. 

Excellence is everywhere to be had though, with thrilling performances in the pool and in track and field in particular. However, the most extraordinary of athletes were without doubt those competing in Para Powerlifting.

Unlike the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games incorporates Para sports alongside able bodied events in the competition programme. There are no separate games, and a gold medal is a gold medal, regardless of whether in a Para event or otherwise.

Australian powerlifter Nang Nguyen came to the sport after suffering polio.

At the Commonwealth Games, Para Powerlifting comes in lightweight and heavyweight categories just like rowing, and I had the privilege of witnessing the Men’s Lightweight competition on Tuesday morning. Athletes have to be under 72 kg bodyweight, and bench press from a supine position, with the final outcome determined by the weight lifted and a complex formula the athlete’s body weight.

Collectively, the athletes have overcome a wide range of disabilities. Some have suffered from polio, like Australian Nang Nguyen or Nigerian Paul Kehinde, or are lower limb amputees like England’s Ali Jawad.

What becomes quickly apparent, though, is that this is not a sporting event for disabled people, but an event for elite athletes who just happen to live with a disability. The eye-wateringly large weights lifted by all of the competitors in this event would put most able bodied athletes to shame.

For example, the eighth-placed Nguyen, who weighs 58.4kg, bench pressed 132kg. It is instructive to compare that with benchmarks in other sports. Olympic selection for the Australian men’s heavyweight rowing squad is predicated on performing three bench presses at just 95kg, and without the stringent technical criteria which are required for a successful lift in powerlifting. Nor is Nguyen’s 132kg lift far from the 150kg bench pressed by one of the strongest players in Australia’s National Rugby League, Danny Fualalo. The difference is that the Bulldogs player weighs a full 115kg.

The race for the medals, however, saw three athletes break clear of the field. 52.5kg Ali Jawad from England, an above the knee amputee, opened his account with a lift of 155kg, before progressively lifting 161kg and 166kg in the second and third rounds.

This was answered by Nigeria’s Roland Ezuruike and Paul Kehinde.

Paul Kehinde from Nigeria attempts to bench press 222.5 kg bench press on his way to a silver medal.

Kehinde’s opening lift of 211kg was the biggest in the competition, but he was surpassed on bodyweight by Ezuruike, who pressed 188kg on his first lift and 194kg on his second before failing on his attempt at 202kg.

None of this daunted bronze medallist Jawad, who was so pleased with his performance that he somersaulted off the bench onto his stumps and celebrated in exuberant fashion in front of the judges.

Just as impressive was the support given by the crowd, who treated Jawad and every other athlete, regardless of nationality, as if they were a home town hero.

The final results of the Lightweight Para Powerlifting.

At the end of the competition, the scoreboard told a tale of athletic excellence on a par with anything to be seen this week at the Commonwealth Games.

The public overwhelmingly recognised this, and the common opinion amongst spectators to whom I spoke was that integrating Para and normal competitions enhanced the Games overall. 

It’s time for other competitions to learn from the Commonwealth Games and treat the achievements of Para athletes the same as their able bodied colleagues.

The lesson for other events, like the Olympics, must now be that integrating Para sports is the way to the future. The era of segregating elite athletes, who just happen to have disabilities, is no longer supported, nor accepted by the general public.

Photography © William O’Chee.

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