Wheelchair basketball: From the players’ travel diaries
For some of them, it was not just the destination but even the journey that turned out to be memorable for various reasons. Overcoming those speed bumps and last-minute jitters, when the teams finally reached India, it felt like they had already won one leg of the tournament!
A five-day celebration of skill, enthusiasm, camaraderie and compassion wraps up India's first International #WheelchairBasketball Tournament. Each player here is a winner, regardless of winning a medal or not. We would like to thank everyone for their participation. pic.twitter.com/0iHevFKTsI— ICRC New Delhi (@ICRC_nd) November 11, 2022
The Gaza Strip
Boisterous cheering, sweaty bear hugs, tears flowing freely, players hopping off their wheelchairs and spinning on their heads – there were no holds barred when the team from the Gaza Strip celebrated winning the cup at India's 1st International Wheelchair Basketball Tournament held recently in New Delhi. But the journey up to the winning basket was arduous for the team.
The team shared that it took them four days to reach India with stopovers in two countries en route. "There was constant doubt about whether we will be able to cross the border and about how we will be treated even if we do manage to cross. In our neighbouring country, we were confined to a room at the airport itself and not allowed to take hotel rooms. We ran out of food and water and had to sleep on the ground, even though some of us have complicated health conditions and need special care," said Ali Gebriel, who also got news from home that his father had a fall and broke his leg.
The team's administrator and doctor, Hani Matar, explained that there were many complicated procedures along the way. "There was a lot of back and forth with the authorities to explain who we are and our situation, but it did not change anything. This happens to us often. We are stopped at every checkpoint and airport," he said.
But for the players, basketball is "everything".
It is my sport, my challenge, my entertainment, my way of stepping out of home.
- Abdul Joad Mousa
Hosam Galzin echoed Mousa's sentiments and added, "There was one motivation through it all – I need to travel and represent Palestine. I'm like a fighter for my country. And now with the cup in our hands, we feel a rush of energy and none of the past matters."
They did make their journey count, and how!
Team Bangladesh had some nail-biting moments even before they wheeled onto the basketball court for their first match. Although the process for getting their visas was initiated well in time, the players got the clearance only the day that they were supposed to fly out. The result: they got one hour to pack up all their things and head out to the airport.
"We were training for the tournament without any clarity on whether we would actually be able to play at all because we did not have our visas. When we were down to only a few days, we lost hope that the visa would come through and some of our teammates left for their hometowns from the training centre," said Lokman Hossain, for whom this was the first international match.
But there was a sudden turn of events and a few hours before their scheduled flight the embassy said the visas were ready. "We got a call to pack up immediately and set out. We scurried about and grabbed whatever clothes we could. But all of us were very excited that despite all the uncertainty we could finally play on an international platform," said Anisur Rahman, another player.
Mustafa Khairdine and his teammates from Lebanon had looked forward to the trip to India. Khairdine, who has travelled to many countries for sports, said, "If one travels all the world but does not travel to India, it is like not having travelled at all." He watched many videos on YouTube about the daily life of Indians, the temples and the diverse culture before the trip. But their high spirits were dampened when they reached Beirut airport and were informed that the whole team could not travel together because the aircraft had the capacity to only take three wheelchair users.
If one travels all the world but does not travel to India, it is like not having travelled at all.
- Mustafa Khairdine
"We had to split the team and send one batch of players, which included three wheelchair users and six others who could walk with assistive devices, in the first flight. The rest of us (including six wheelchair users) took a later flight but because of the rescheduling we had a layover of 16 hours in Doha. Those of us who had to stay back got quite tired. It affected our attitude, team spirit and our performance. It also messed our practice schedule at the venue," he said. But he added that the arrangements made by the organizers at the venue were really good and compensated for their initial disappointment.
Despite the twist in their plans, 20-year-old Abdallah Yassine shared that they eventually had a good time. "Every travel experience is great in terms of seeing a new country, meeting new people, knowing a little about their culture and gaining experience from senior players. It was my first time outside our region and everything seemed interesting in India – the food (very spicy), the way people live and the cars being driven on the right side of the road whereas we drive on the left," he said.
The trip to India for the wheelchair basketball tournament marked a special milestone for Nabil Choumalees from Syria. It was his first flight. "Looking out of the flight's window as we flew above the clouds felt like a dream. We had wings and were going over countries. I was thrilled that we could watch movies on the screens behind the seats. It was like the stuff we see in movies," he said. Choumalees did feel a slight jitter when the aircraft was taking off and then when it landed but he shared it was all very thrilling.
Some of his other teammates who were also flying for the first time wondered if their trip would turn overly adventurous with them landing in the sea. The men laughed and teased one another and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, taking the blankets and pillows they got in flight as souvenirs of their iconic trip to India.