African countries pull visually impaired runners from Games just hours before opening ceremony due to funding problems
A shadow was cast over the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games after two African countries withdrew their teams at the last minute.
Malawi and Botswana, which were due to enter visually impaired runners, pulled their teams out just hours before the opening ceremony on Wednesday.
Cash-strapped Malawi, which was to participate in the Games for the first time, said it had a funding shortfall of £6,000 which led to the last-minute cancellation.
“We could not do otherwise but cancel the trip at the last minute. All our efforts to raise 3.5m kwacha (about £6,000) failed. It is a huge disappointment,” said Juma Mkandawire, president of the local organising committee.
The Guardian has learned that “financial irregularities” in Botswana’s Paralympic committee led to the Botswana National Olympic Committee (BNOC) withdrawing its support.
“We stopped our support for the Paralympic team because of an irregularity on their side,” said Tuelo Serufho, chief executive officer of the BNOC. “They approached us for financial support and we initially agreed but then we had to withdraw.
“If they wanted to go ahead without our support, that is a matter for them,” Serufho said. “My concern is that the Paralympics body learn from this and ensure that in future, all they do is above board.”
Both countries were due to enter visually impaired sprinters at the Games. Malawians Chisomo Jeremani, 18, and Janet Shedani, 17, would have run in the 200m and 100m events respectively with their guides.
Their coach George Luhanga said he had used his house in the commercial capital of Blantyre as a camp for the athletes, who spent seven days preparing for the trip.
“We are all devastated because the government failed to come to our rescue,” he said.
The International Paralympic Committee said it received a letter from Malawi just hours before the opening ceremony stating that it could not attend due to a lack of financial support from the government.
“We are very disappointed that these countries have withdrawn,” said the IPC spokesman Craig Spence.
Mkandawire said Malawi’s failure to attend the Games could lead to sanctions after the IPC provided the country with £4,000 funding.
“We have been asked to refund the money,” he said. “We are appealing to the government and the general public in Malawi to help us refund the money because, with transactions, we lost some money in the process.”
But the IPC said it would help both countries improve their finances to help with future Games.
“We will be speaking to the countries to see what we can do to help them and engage the government to get further financial support,” Spence said. “We can’t be responsible for every Paralympic committee, but we organise workshops and work with them to help them stand on their own two feet.”
With a population of 14 million, Malawi has more than 300,000 people with various degrees of disability.
Botswana, which was due to put forward the 27-year-old sprinter Tshotlego Golden in the T13 200m, has competed in the Paralympics once before, with Tshotlego Morama winning gold at the Athens 2004 T46 400m. However she failed to defend her title at the 2008 Beijing Games, despite having been scheduled to compete.
“There is a sizable number of people living with disabilities in Botswana,” said Serufho. “As someone who loves this country and wants to see all citizens and representatives being afforded the opportunity to take part in sport, I am not happy that we do not have representation. However we need to ensure that things are done correctly for us to be engaged.”