CAMBODIA: The first international wheelchair sports exchange hosted by NGO Soulcial Trust and supported by companies in the travel retail industry, has been hailed as a great success.

The exchange, set in motion by Asia Pacific Travel Retail Association (APTRA) Executive Officer Michael Barrett, is part of a three-year programme involving athletes with disabilities from France, India and Cambodia. The main objective is to raise awareness of the many challenges disabled people face in developing countries.

The first international wheelchair sports exchange in Siem Reap was a great success

The first event in Siem Reap, Cambodia was organised and hosted by The Soulcial Trust and sponsored by Swiss research agency m1nd-set and Indian distribution company Bommidala Group.

Athletes with disabilities spent two weeks training in wheelchair rugby and basketball. The event included training sessions, basketball and rugby matches, workshops on identifying new rugby players, and building awareness of disability by introducing children in Cambodia to wheelchair sports. In 2018, the athletes will travel to France, and in 2019, to India.

‘Quad Rugby’ players from France and India trained with basketball players from Battambang and a newly-formed team in Siem Reap. Participants in the exchange included athletes from the Stade Toulousain Handisport Club in Toulouse, the Montpellier Handi Rugby Club, the Wheelchair Rugby Federation of India in New Delhi and the Cambodian Wheelchair Basketball Federation.

The exchange included training sessions and basketball matches

Indian participant Ishank Ahuja commented: “I joined this sports exchange because I can get excellent training here. I can go back to India to teach others so we can have more players and India can have the best team.”

Another sportsman from France, Tristan Barfety, said: “From the very first day I was captivated because I never had the opportunity to be a part of an exchange like this. Thanks to this project, I have been able to meet different people from different countries, while playing different sports, which is very enriching.

“It has been really amazing for me and has filled my head with incredible memories that make me want to participate in the project next year.”

In September this year, Soulcial Trust started the wheelchair basketball training at ICF Campus Arena for people with disabilities, mostly affected by landmines and polio.

Soulcial Trust Programmes Director Genni Low said: “Having the opportunity to train with seasoned athletes was really important for motivating the Siem Reap players.

“They had already been training with the women from Battambang, but adding the French and Indian players to the mix made a bigger impact in seeing what they could accomplish through sports. Funds permitting, we’ll be looking to develop the team here and send them to Bangkok for the Asia Paragames Qualifiers in 2018, as well as expand training to include children and youth with disabilities. The exchange was really important in helping our team develop the disciplines needed to compete and train others.”

The training sessions which were open to the public were well attended by visitors and supporters. “Although the biggest focus on the exchange was the training, at its core the exchange has always been about increasing awareness about disability,” Low added. “We want to be able to show the public that people with disabilities are, first and foremost, people who love to play sports and have fun as much as anyone.”

The exchange concluded with an award ceremony. The two players who displayed the most supportive attitude, and contributed the most to the development of their fellow team players, were honoured as the first recipients of The Ian McInnes Award.

“Although the biggest focus on the exchange was the training, at its core the exchange has always been about increasing awareness about disability.”–Soulcial Trust Programmes Director Genni Low

Soulcial Trust Director Michael Barrett said: “The honour was created and so named in memory of a dear friend of mine who passed away in hospital in his hometown of Edinburgh on Monday 27 November as the exchange was underway.

“We had known each other when we met on our Duke of Edinburgh Gold expedition almost 30 years ago, in 1989. He suffered from a rare genetic disease, and throughout his life he defied all the odds and doctors’ predictions that he would not survive beyond the age of 25.

“It was cancer, not his long-term disease, which finally overcame Ian, who passed away at age 48. He was an inspiration to me and many others, as despite his physical disability and being wheelchair bound, he lived life to the full, doing everything from mountaineering with me to bungee jumping and parachuting.”

The Ian McInnes Award will be given annually during the wheelchair sports exchange.