Even Paralympians could struggle in wheelchair-unfriendly Rio

With their Mad Max-style wheelchairs, tattoos, and aggression-filled faces, Rio de Janeiro`s wheelchair rugby players would seem near impossible to stop.

Even Paralympians could struggle in wheelchair-unfriendly Rio

Rio de Janeiro: With their Mad Max-style wheelchairs, tattoos, and aggression-filled faces, Rio de Janeiro`s wheelchair rugby players would seem near impossible to stop.

But in the city hosting the Paralympic Games a year from this Monday, just one typically broken sidewalk is enough to bring the toughest to a halt.

"Accessibility is our number one problem," said Gilson Dias Wirzma Junior, 28, part of the national Brazilian wheelchair rugby team and a hopeful for the Summer Paralympics, which start September 7, 2016 in Rio.

In his Rio suburb of Sao Goncalo, for example, "there are no real sidewalks," said Junior, who was left a tetraplegic when he was dumped by a wave while swimming in 2007. "Taking the bus is nearly impossible. There`s only one bus on my route that has wheelchair access. You can wait for up to two hours."

Rio de Janeiro, the "Marvelous City," will attract visitors from around the world during the Paralympics and the Olympics in August. But anyone relying on wheelchairs -- fans and athletes alike -- will face Olympian-sized hurdles.

Preparing for practice at a spartan court in northern Rio, members of the Santer wheelchair rugby club traded horror stories of broken pavements, missing ramps and malfunctioning elevators.

"Sadly, that," said Junior, "is what we are living with."Wheelchair rugby players are not complainers.

When their game was invented in the 1970s in Canada, early participants called it "murderball."

Becoming a full Paralympic medal sport in 2000, murderball features teams of four dodging, passing, sprinting and battering their way with a ball to the opposing end line. It`s full on.

The wheelchairs, fitted with battering rams and special wheel covers, look more like miniature battle wagons from a dystopian movie than the symbol of people who have been crippled. And while striking with hands is not allowed, the wheelchair-on-wheelchair hits are brutal.

During training, Santer members raced around the basketball-sized court, strapped into their chairs, and using their partially disabled hands and arms to power themselves with surprising speed and agility.

One of the heaviest players, a tall bearded man with a number 7 shirt, was knocked clean over, requiring two assistants to pick him up and put the chair back on its wheels.

"The hits are what I really enjoy," veteran player Eduardo Mayr, 43, said with a great smile from his heavily scarred wheelchair, before wiping the sweat from his face and racing off again.Some 4,350 athletes from 178 countries are expected at the Rio Paralympics. But the city is barely ready.

"Just to accommodate the athletes, welcome the athletes and help them in -- we have to make an effort," Rio 2016 organizing committee spokesman Mario Andrada admitted last month.

By way of example, he pointed out that the biggest private vehicle currently available for carrying wheelchair passengers has a capacity of only eight. That`s not one full squad from a typical wheelchair rugby team.

Even with all their skill and strength, wheelchair rugby players are no different when it comes to the Rio obstacle course.

"One of the symbols of Rio are the Portuguese sidewalks," said another player, Renan Prestes, 28, referring to the stylish, but uneven black and white mosaic paving common in southern neighborhoods. "But for us they`re a nightmare."

Crossing Rio`s busy streets can be equally frustrating and more dangerous.

"You find streets where there`s a ramp on one side, but not the other and you`re half way across the street when you realize," Prestes said. "You`re stuck."

Prestes, who suffered spinal cord injuries during a swimming accident, drives a car, but even so he is not in the clear.

"The handicapped parking spaces are constantly taken," his girlfriend Tarcila Formiga, who is able-bodied, said while watching from on the sidelines of the rugby court.Formiga, 30, said her relationship with Prestes has opened her eyes to the reality faced by the disabled in the world`s seventh biggest economy.

"It`s the details. For example, you go to a hotel here and ask if they have an adapted room and they say yes, but then the bed turns out to be too high for the person in the wheelchair to transfer easily," she said. 

"It`s the little details -- but imagine all that together when the games start?"

Celebrations marking the Paralympic one-year countdown on Monday will aim to start raising awareness. Accessibility will also be a key theme at the opening ceremony on September 7 next year.

"Things are getting better" ahead of the games, says Mayr, one of the first in Brazil to take up the sport in 2008.

But after having traveled widely -- he will soon go to San Diego, California for a disabled surfing contest -- Mayr knows how far Rio has to climb before becoming wheelchair-friendly.

"This is not Europe and this is not the United States," he said. "The United States -- that`s like Disneyland for us." 

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