On the sidelines of the Paralympics

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BANGALORE: The Asian Paralympic event was on at the stadium. I’d missed it the last time it was in Bangalore. This time I was keen to see how the disabled play badminton. I was taken by surprise. Some of the athletes are extremely fit and strong, and — but for their disability — would have been extremely competitive players. There was one lad from India who had a deformity in his right ankle — the leg was short and twisted, in such a way that he could not even wear a shoe — but he nevertheless played his heart out, and even at one point dived full-stretch to retrieve a drop shot. As Prajwal has written in today’s Times, there were even army soldiers from India and Sri Lanka who had lost their limbs in combat. I struck up a chat with the Malaysian chief coach Moe Chin Kiat. He’s a warm, eager sort, who’s obviously taking great pleasure from the event. He had the contentment of someone who has fulfilled his calling. In his younger days he was a junior of Eddy Choong and a contemporary of Ng Boon Bee and Tan Aik Hwang, and since ’92 has decided to work with the disabled. I was surprised to know that many of Malaysia’s best-known internationals — including the Sidek brothers and Wong Mew Choo — were his students. This is the piece I wrote. No idea where it will be published 🙂

Beyond badminton: The Paralympic challenge

Sport for most is the highest calling; for Moe Chin Kiat, sport is a means to achieve an even higher calling. It has been 18 years since the former Malaysian national-level player decided to devote himself to training disabled athletes in badminton. Thus, he says, when it’s time to say goodbye to this world, he’ll be leaving a happy man.

Kiat is the Malaysian chief coach for the ongoing Paralympic Games at the Raheja Stadium in Bangalore. Only five countries are competing, instead of the original 18 (most cried off after the Mumbai terror attack), but the week-long event is still a paen to the triumph of the human spriit. There were players with one hand, others with one leg, while yet others were wheelchair-bound.

Moe Chin Kiat, mentor to Misbun Sidek and Wong Mew Choo

Moe Chin Kiat, mentor to Misbun Sidek and Wong Mew Choo

Kiat, 71, was part of the generation of Malaysian players that included Ng Boon Bee, Tan Aik Hwang, and Tan Yee Khan. He was a potential international, but a ligament injury to his left knee put paid to his international ambitions. He became a coach with the national team in 1969, and went on to mentor several illustrious players, including the Sidek brothers, during his tenure. In 1992, the Paralympic Association approached him — they needed a coach but could not afford to pay. Meanwhile, the Chinese world champion, Han Jian, had taken over the Malaysian team and Kiat decided to take up the new challenge.

“When I took over, players were gloomy,” he says. “It was a challenge, it’s different from coaching able-bodied players. You need to be one-on-one. You cannot ask them to use regular technique. You need to understand them; if the right leg is deformed, they tend to use more of the left leg. So you need to get them to strengthen it. The first time, I just watched them play. I sat on a wheelchair and went round and round. My hands got cramped, but the players kept on going.”

With the wheelchair-bound, the problem was in getting the right kind of equipment. “Usually, they were the sort you get in hospitals. But to play badminton, you need the wheels at an angle, otherwise you topple to the side. You also need support in the front and back. So I helped design some, and now the national association gets them custom-built. The best wheelchairs are in The Netherlands, they are very light but expensive.”

It has been difficult convincing the disabled to take up sport. “They have an inferiority complex, so you need to go along with them, take them outside, get to know them. After a while they open up, and then it’s such a pleasure. There are now around a hundred disabled badminton players in Malaysia, of which 30 are in my centre at Selangor.” He says the Sports Ministry has been helpful, and provides free courts. And although public access is still a problem, it has improved greatly.

At his centre, players report thrice a week — Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. “Most of them have low-paying jobs, so they can’t travel every day,” Kiat says. “Many come from far-off places, they need to travel for a couple of hours, so we get them to play on Saturday evenings, stay over, and play again on Sunday mornings.”

He’s obviously enjoying his work. He has pleasant memories of Bangalore, having come here once with Misbun Sidek in the Eighties, and then with the Paralympic team in 2002. “It gives me great pleasure to work with the disabled, and do something that you can feel proud of when you die.”

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About badmintonmania

Sometimes I wonder if I'm the Indian in Thoreau's Walden who makes cane baskets and is surprised nobody wants them. A. was talking about discipline when she said: "But Dev, if you want to move ahead in life, you'll have to be like that," and she may as well have defined everything else for me. I've played the low percentage game for too long to believe there's anything in it but the romance; the odds keep getting jacked up higher and higher; and you may be a good Idealist but a worse Fool.
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