By: Ockert de Villiers
Considered as equals to their able-bodied compatriots South African Paralympians received a rapturous welcome on their return from Rio de Janeiro.
The 44-member national squad arrived back in the country with a haul of 17 medals - seven gold, six silver and four bronze - to finish the quadrennial showpiece in 22nd place.
This was the country’s smallest medal harvest since the 1992 Barcelona Games but it was the smallest team South Africa has sent in two decades.
Sports minister Fikile Mbalula sang the praises of the Paralympians as role models in society sending a message that people with disabilities should be treated as equals.
“The story of the Paralympics is a great story, it is a story of the triumph of the human spirit, it is the story that says to us you are not disempowered by your disability,” Mbalula said.
“Our athletes have shown us that, the story of the Paralympics says to us that when you are born with disability it is not the end of the road. We are all equal and if your child, your sister, your cousin, your brother is born with a disability don’t lock them behind a closed door.”
Like their Olympic counterparts the Paralympic medallists received cheques of R400,000 for a gold medal, while silver and bronze medals were worth R200,000 and R80,000 respectively.
“It is not the exclusive right of criminals that can afford to drive Lamborghinis, those that earn money from sport become role models,” Mbalula said.
“We are incentivising and rewarding our team for excellence, we did it in London where we came back saying whatever you get in the Olympics, you get at the Paralympics.”
Double gold medallist Charl du Toit was the big winner of all the athletes that have stepped onto the podium at either the Olympics or the Paralympics.
Du Toit won gold in the 100m for the cerebral palsied setting a world record of 11.42 seconds the day before adding the 400m crown to confirm his sprint supremacy earning him R1 050 000 in total.
The 23-year-old Du Toit said he was overwhelmed by the enthusiastic welcome the Paralympic team received on their return to OR Tambo International Airport.
“I was quite emotional seeing all the support, I love this wonderful country, and so thankful that people came out to show their support today which makes you proud to be a South Africa,” Du Toit said.
“It is not about the money, this is about hard work coming together, if I can take these two medals and break them into small little pieces and give them away to the people that have contributed to my career, my coach, my family, team-mates, that is what medals are for.”
Athletics won the majority of the medals at the Paralympics reeling in 15 of the country's 17 medals at the Rio Games.
Four athletes won two medals each - Hilton Langenhoven (men’s T12 long jump gold, and 200m silver), and Ilse Hayes (100m and 400m T13 silver), Dyan Buis (men's 400m T38 gold, long jump F38), adding to Du Toit’s two gold.
Among the medallists were 14-year-old Ntando Mahlangu won silver in the men's 200m T42 at his maiden Games with flag bearer Zanele Situ winning bronze in the F54 javelin throw.
Among the big winners from the Games is Suzanne Ferreira, who coached six athletes to the Paralympics including five medallists - Hayes, Fanie van der Merwe (men’s 100m T37 bronze), Buis, Du Toit, and Anrune Liebenberg (women’s 400m T47 silver).
“We are a family, we play together, we plan together, and we dream together,” said Ferreira, who trains the squad out of Stellenbosch.