Tue, Jun 03, 2008 - Page 18 News List

FEATURE: Timor athletes face more problems than most

AFP , DILI

Standing unsteadily on buckled legs in the searing East Timorese sun, Domingos Sarmento Soares slams balls over the net on one of his tiny country's few tennis courts.

The 29-year-old citizen of Asia’s youngest nation has most things he needs to train to compete in wheelchair tennis at the Beijing Paralympics — except the wheelchair itself.

Soares’ battered regular wheelchair is not up to the task, leaving him to borrow a too-small chair donated to a female fellow athlete by Australia, or simply go without.

“There’s only one wheelchair so we can’t do daily training,” Soares says. “When we play in China we’ll borrow one more there.”

With only six years of independence under its belt, the tiny but proud nation of East Timor is preparing to send a small cohort of Olympians and Paralympians to carry the flag in Beijing.

But severe shortages of money, facilities and equipment, as well as infighting among sports associations, means East Timor faces more obstacles than most in achieving its Olympic dream.

The country is one the world’s poorest and East Timor’s challenges mean that little is left for sport, says Joao Carrascalao, the head of Timor’s Olympic committee.

The country plans to send two marathon runners — Antonio Ramos and Mariana Diaz Ximenez — to August’s Olympics as well as 11 paralympians in the marathon, weightlifting, table tennis and wheelchair tennis events, Carrascalao says.

“In all the other sports we cannot qualify to participate in Beijing. Sport is not a priority for the government of East Timor and our infrastructure is non-existent,” he says.

“We don’t have any hope of winning the marathon, but to finish the marathon is already an achievement,” he says. “We don’t have facilities in East Timor to train for the marathon, but you can train on the road.”

With its team together, East Timor is now looking for money to send the athletes to Beijing. With the government unwilling to foot the bill, the Olympic committee is looking for foreign sponsors, with no luck yet.

The situation is not being helped by perpetual feuds that have poisoned relationships between East Timor’s sports associations.

Carrascalao is barely on speaking terms with the heads of East Timor’s weightlifting, athletics, boxing and soccer associations.

The associations accuse Carrascalao of a lack of disclosure about the Olympic committee’s bank account, which only he has access to.

Carrascalao, by contrast, accuses the associations of trying to defraud the committee of money.

A former rival of Carrascalao, Paralympic association head Juliao Soares da Silva, says he’s put the feud to one side for the sake of developing East Timorese sport.

“When else is sport going to progress here, now that we have become a nation? When East Timor was still a province of Indonesia it wasn’t as stormy as now,” he says in his Dili home.

While the leaders argue, East Timor’s athletes train with what they have.

In a pink-walled shed in Dili’s dusty backblocks, East Timor’s three Paralympic weightlifters train beneath posters of US pro-wrestlers and Chinese soap stars.

Domingos Freitas, who volunteers to train the weightlifters, says the preparation for Beijing is being done without standard competition equipment, including the leg straps to tie the disabled athletes to the weight benches.

“Here in East Timor, for training, there’s only the weights that we can buy from hotels,” Freitas says.

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