Chris Patton was selected to represent South Africa at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia. He shares his experiences with us
Being selected to represent South Africa in Lawn Bowls at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, was a huge honour and privilege, and the whole experience was phenomenal from start to finish. At times, as a middle-aged man with a family, a job and an everyday life, I found it just a little surreal.
I bowled very well at times and poorly at others, but, throughout, I was trying my best – even though local conditions made bowling very tricky. Adapting to greens with properties so markedly different from South Africa was a real challenge, but very exciting. The atmosphere and surroundings were magnificent.
Leaving the Gold Coast with a medal made everything a little sweeter.
My biggest concern before leaving South Africa was whether the athletes’ village, where we would be staying for three weeks, would meet my accessibility requirements as a paraplegic. In the end, I needn’t have worried. Australia has a great accessibility reputation, and the Commonwealth organisers took accessibility seriously. The Games had many athletes with disabilities, who were wheelchair users, across many sports.
Team SA had two wheelchair users, alongside physically and visually impaired athletes. My fellow wheelchair-user teammate and I were allocated separate four-person flats, which we shared with three other teammates or colleagues. The universal accessible (UA) ablutions were fantastic for me and my three more able roommates.
The equipment and the design layout were all great, exceeding the top-range South African facilities. There were public UA toilets, both permanent and temporary, everywhere I went, which included airports, the athletes’ village, the Broadbeach Bowls Club, the athletics’ stadium and a local mall.
The buses that transported the 5 000 athletes between the airport, village and venue had drop-down access ramps or built-in lift platforms. On board there were fold-up seats with support rails to accommodate any wheelchair users.
On one occasion, once our event was completed, we arranged a volunteer-driven car to transport us to the stadium so that we could watch some athletics. The car depot produced a high-tech polyethylene sliding board to enable wheelchair users to transfer with ease.
Wheelchair seating and lifts
At the Opening Ceremony briefing, the wheelchair users from each of the 71 participating nations were shepherded to a designated wheelchair-seating zone and given a specific briefing within the overall athletes’ briefing.
Lifts were available in every multi-storey building, and there was even a wheelchair and prosthesis depot in the village to cater for any mechanical problems, which I visited once just to see what they offered and ended putting air into my tyres just to keep them occupied.
Kudos to SASCOC
To pay kudos to South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC), their support team, with fellow wheelchair user Leon Fleisher in the mix, was on hand for when I had any problems. The medical and physiotherapist teams were always available when we needed a treatment, massages or medication.
At the bowls club, where our event took place, the organisers had installed strong and durable temporary ramps to get wheelchairs and polishing machines on and off the green. During our medal ceremony, a specially designed wooden ramp was produced for my benefit.
There were in fact three wheelchair bowlers taking part in the open para trips event, but I was the only one who bowled from a wheelchair. The other two players were double and single leg amputees, who used their wheelchairs to move around on the green in order to limit the pressure and chaffing on their stumps.
One of the real highlights of the Games was interacting with all the other bowlers and athletes with disabilities from the participating countries. It is always good to share experiences and make new friends.
The accessibility experience throughout our time in the Gold Coast was fantastic. The Australian volunteers (called Games Shapers) were all beautiful people and wonderful hosts (and with quite a few expat South Africans in their midst), and a credit to their country.
Back to reality
However, on returning to South Africa, the difference in accessibility between the two countries was stark. The 14-hour long haul back over Antarctica from Sydney to Johannesburg is tough, especially for a paraplegic like me. Those athletes from Team SA who did not live in Gauteng were booked into the Southern Sun at OR Tambo airport.
The hotel has a shuttle service to transport guests from the airport to the hotel, but these shuttles are not wheelchair friendly. After the high of staying in the accessible Gold Coast, I found it very testing to sit at the airport – for over an hour – after all the other Team SA athletes had left on the shuttle, while waiting for the hotel to hire a rental car.
Better service, please!
While I am indebted to the hotel staff for the effort they made to sort me out, the long delay after an arduous flight was unwelcome. I was fortunate that SASCOC was involved as a sponsor for the athletes; otherwise the cost of the car hire would have been my responsibility. I would like to encourage Sun International and South African airport shuttle services to take a leaf out of the book of operators of accessible buses in Australia – we do have a few similar buses here.
Accessible buses with fold-up seats are not more expensive and hold the same capacity. Being able to cater for all guests regardless of their physical ability will mean more economic benefits in the long run.
Just having the equipment is not enough
The Southern Sun wheelchair-friendly accommodation offered shower seats; however, they were positioned too low. A shower seat should be positioned between 45 and 50 cm above the floor surface when folded out. Those in rooms 31 and 34 are less than 40 cm above the floor, which makes the transfer back into a wheelchair after showering both difficult and potentially dangerous.
As a premier hotel at the largest international gateway in South Africa, Southern Sun should do better.