Don's diary: paddling in paradise

April 19, 2002

Having recently completed a Winston Churchill Fellowship, which involved travelling around the Pacific Rim researching the possibilities of including disabled people in Outrigger canoe sporting events, I could not miss the opportunity to persuade the presidents of the governing bodies in the International Va'a (Outrigger canoeing) Federation to include disability races in the next world championships. So here I am travelling to French Polynesia for the world Sprint Championships on the island of Bora Bora to catch them all in one place.

The budget is tight so I opt for the rich and varied joys of camping. My tent is a no-go area during the day as the sun generates temperatures appropriate to fast-food preparation, but on the first morning I wake to torrential rain. I have caught the rainy season and my pitch is now a lake.

I embarked on this trip knowing that my disability message could well be overshadowed by organisers' priorities for delivering races. To my relief I am given VIP status and invited to the board meeting by the IVF president. He really should change that acronym - likely to disappoint wannabe mums.

Just as the president is about to wrap up the meeting, Danielle Scarpa of the Italian Federation and I jump in quickly, speaking up for disability. It is suggested that I canvass nations wishing to send disabled crews to the 2004 event so that strength of support can be gauged.

The opening ceremony is spectacular. Tiered seating on three sides borders a stage from which jut the twin bows of a replica voyaging canoe, the sort of vessel in which people from Tahiti would have set off 3,000 years ago to populate the Pacific islands. On arrival, a lei of exotic flowers is placed around my neck and I am escorted to a seat with ministers of culture and sport, the great and good.

Speeches are interminable and the prayers in Tahitian impenetrable, but respect is maintained for the unique spirituality of a sport that has its roots in ancient epic voyages. The fire and hula dancing are outstanding. I've never seen grass wave quite like that before.

The programme of more than 180 races is completed in Tahitian style. Announcers call up crews and commentate in three languages.

Information is relayed through speakers placed at each end of the course, resulting in commentary at the finish competing with the previous words of wisdom arriving back from the start 500m away. This battle of words is enhanced by very loud reggae music, overlaid with Tahitian drum-roll crescendos as each race nears the finish.

The championships are highly successful for their inclusiveness. World champions are declared at various levels: under-16, under-19, open, masters women over 35 and 45 and men over 40 and 50. By good fortune, the Italians turn up with an elite women's crew with two disabled members. Their battling performances perfectly vindicate my contention that in this sport, the disabled can integrate with their non-disabled companions in a single crew. Nor are there worries about facility access legislation. Paddlers carry disabled teammates ashore with pride and affection, adding nothing to organisers' headaches.

Homeward bound. The next championships are at Hilo, on Big Island, Hawaii.

The hosts supply the boats, that in 2004 will be Hawaiian designs. At Staffordshire University we have one of Hawaii's best, now to be manufactured by P&H in Derby. The perfect cradle for development of the sport in this country would be the university canoe clubs. They could cover the cost of a boat and paddles with a successful bid to Lottery Awards for All. A British university championship race to a Scottish island, preferably one supporting a distillery, springs to mind.

John Court is director of recreational services at Staffordshire University. He is an ex-British canoe team captain, Olympian, Winston Churchill Fellow, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and received the 2001 Mike Jones Award from the British Canoe Union for his Outrigger disability canoeing project.

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