No hurdle too high for Flanders’ Paralympic athletes


Thanks to increased investment and better awareness, parasports are on the rise across Flanders, with some of world’s best athletes stemming from Tongeren and Antwerp

Towards inclusivity

You might have heard of wheelchair tennis, but does boccia ring a bell? The aim of this game, played by people with severe motor disabilities, is to throw red and blue leather balls as close as possible to a white target ball, or jack. It is practiced in over 50 countries, and one of the best players in the world is Pieter Cilissen from Tongeren.

Thanks to the combined efforts of various organisations, sports for people with disabilities, or parasports, are becoming increasingly popular in Flanders. The ongoing renovations of a specialised sports centre in Antwerp province are expected to boost the numbers even further.

A key moment for Flemish parasports, known in Dutch as G-sports, was four years ago. The London 2012 Paralympics garnered an unprecedented amount of attention in the worldwide media.

Flemish athletes put in a strong performance, with wheelchair athlete Marieke Vervoort bringing home gold and silver medals in the 100m and 200m sprint competitions. The feat  turned her into a bekende Vlaming (Flemish celebrity).

The same year, the government of Flanders established G-sport Vlaanderen, an umbrella organisation improving the collaboration between parasport associations in the region and the provinces, responsible for policy planning. 

Sports club near you

A contact point, Steunpunt G-sport Vlaanderen, was created to answer questions, in addition to assembling the necessary expertise and setting up initiatives to stimulate the growth of parasports.

The support centre provides an online database, allowing people with disabilities to find a sports club offering accessible infrastructure and coaching for the sport of their choice. There are about 600 sports clubs included in the database, some 260 of which are in Antwerp province.

In addition to boccia, another popular parasport is goalball (pictured below). Visually impaired players from two teams attempt to throw a ball that is embedded with bells into the opponents’ goal. Players listen to the sound of the bells to judge the position and movement of the ball.

We are working hard to get more people engaged. Athletic activities are essential for health and social integration

- Kevin De Smedt of G-sport Vlaanderen

It is estimated that only 6% of disabled Flemings participate in sports, although it’s difficult to come up with precise statistics, says Kevin De Smedt, communication advisor at Steunpunt G-sport Vlaanderen. “We are working hard to get more people engaged,” he says. “Athletic activities are essential for their health and social integration.”

While sports are important for everyone’s well-being, this is even more true for people with disabilities, he says, because they run a higher risk of developing health problems such obesity. Sports also help wheelchair users avoid pressure sores and bladder infections, to name only a few benefits.

“But sports can also be essential to venting frustrations about the disability and to gathering the strength to find your way in society,” explains De Smedt. “The social aspect is also important, because these people are more vulnerable to social isolation.” 

Going for gold

In addition to promoting access to sports for people with disabilities, G-sport Vlaanderen also supports inclusive sporting that sees people with and without disabilities competing together. “This improves the self-confidence of the athletes who are disabled and reduces the prejudices of those who are not,” says De Smedt.

Ann Jambers, whose son, Emlyn Goyvaerts, has been playing recreational basketball since he was eight, echoes De Smedt’s words. Goyvaerts, who’s now 28, has Down syndrome and trains in a team with other intellectually disabled people at the Gembo sports club in Antwerp.

“Our entire family used to go swimming, but that didn’t have the same social advantages,” says Jambers. “Emlyn has a lot of fun playing basketball in a group and is also accepted by the players from the regular team, who sometimes train his group or take him along to games.”

Goyvaerts’ basketball team regularly plays in tournaments. The players also participate at the annual Belgian Special Olympics, that bring together some 12,000 athletes. “The medals Emlyn has won there are sacred to him,” says Jambers.

Jef Vandorpe from Niel, Antwerp province, shows that parasports can be top-level competitions. Eight years ago, the 15-year-old (pictured above) was diagnosed with Perthes disease, a rare disorder affecting the hip. Vandorpe can still walk, albeit with difficulty, but he is unable to run.

Before his diagnosis, he was an athletic child, and sports later helped him to adapt to his disability. He started wheelchair tennis at the Forest Wheels club in Sint-Katelijne-Waver and quickly proved to be a natural talent. 

Running into costs

Today, Vandorpe is ranked fourth best junior in the world. “I want to participate in the Paralympics in 2020 and win a medal four years later,” he says. With the help of his school and the Hopiness organisation, Vandorpe is able to participate in tournaments in Belgium and abroad.

Despite the improvements, many athletes with disabilities have difficulty finding sports clubs with adequate facilities. “Too often, the clubs’ infrastructure is not accessible,” explains De Smedt. “The high cost of sporting equipment, especially wheelchairs, can also discourage many people.”

Sport wheelchairs have to be custom-fitted for each athlete, and every sports requires specific adjustments. A tennis wheelchair is completely different from the one used in rugby, for example. And if the young athlete is still growing, they might have to change the wheelchair every few years, with some costing between €3,000 and €5,000.

I want to participate in the Paralympics in 2020 and win a medal four years later

- Jef Vandorpe

Flemish provinces have services that rent wheelchairs for a low price, allowing people to try out a sport before committing themselves to it. In addition, the G-sportfonds, set up by Antwerp province, raises money for athletes with disabilities and supports clubs looking to invest in parasports. Last year, the fund raised some €440,000.

According to De Smedt, the education sector also plays an essential role. “Schools already offer a number of parasport projects, but too often the youngsters stop any form of exercise when school is over,” he says. “We try to integrate parasports in the schools’ sports days, so that youngsters can get in touch with the clubs that offer these activities.”

Through collaboration with the Flemish Trainers School and the Flemish Bureau for Sports Asssistance, G-sport Vlaanderen is also working on opportunities for prospective parasport instructors. In special courses, the trainers learn communication methods for certain disabilities and to address the physical limitations in a motivating and respectful manner.

Coming in 2018

An important step to a brighter future is the renovation of the Peerdsbos sports centre in Brasschaat. By 2018, Peerdsbos will be a hotspot for all Paralympic activities. The renovation and extensions have a price tag of €4.6 million, some €1.4 million of which is funded by the government of Flanders.

“The infrastructure will be 100% accessible, and the sports fields and facilities will accommodate the different parasports,” says Elke Leenaards, head of the centre’s sports management department. “The staff will also be trained  to assist people with disabilities, and we will also give priority to parasports in organising our programmes.”

With the focus on inclusivity, she continues, Peerdsbos will continue to cater to people without disabilities as well. At the moment, 11.5% of visitors are athletes with disabilities, but this number is expected to rise significantly after the renovations are complete.

New office buildings are also being constructed, and these can be used for parasport services like physiotherapy and training initiatives. Steunpunt G-sport Vlaanderen, currently located in the Berchem district of Antwerp, might also relocate here.

While Peerdsbos is undergoing dramatic changes, so is the Flemish parasports landscape as a whole. By 2018, the regional authorities are expected take over the management of parasport-related policies from the provinces. The centralisation of policymaking should help overcome the remaining hurdles for parasports in the region.

The Paralympic Games in Rio kick off on 7 September

Photo: Hendrik Geenens/Parantee