South Africa: no feet no hindrance for cyclist

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Xolisa Dinga has no feet.

Yet asked what difference there is between him and other cyclists, the 16-year-old is at a loss for words.

’’There is no difference,’’ he eventually says. ’’Where they ride, I can ride. When they go fast, I can go fast.’’

Wearing state-of-the-art carbon fiber prostheses covered by stockings, the teenager put his assertion to the test as a competitor in what is billed as the biggest timed cycling road race in the world: Cape Town's grueling 68-mile Cape Argus.

Barely any of the other 35,000 contestants knew — or could guess — that the beaming teenager on a white racing bike was anything other than an ordinary, able-bodied boy.

But his journey to be part of the peloton that snaked its way from Cape Town, around the tip of Africa and back to the city was anything but ordinary.

’’When we found Xolisa he was mostly dragging himself around on his hands and knees,’’ said Tony Lubner, 53, whose charity, Sabrina Love, raised the money for Xolisa’s ’"legs’’ by entering a team of sponsored riders in last year’s Argus.

South African businessman Lubner and his interior decorator wife Suzy, 47, founded the charity in 2003, in memory of their disabled daughter.

’’Sabrina was an angel. In her seven short years she left an indelible impression on everyone she met. We feel she was sent for a purpose. Suzy and I, being well-off enough to have medical insurance, were able to give Sabrina the best care. We started the charity to help the many familes in our town, Plettenberg Bay, who simply cannot pay the added cost entailed in having a special child,’’ said Lubner, himself a keen cyclist who along with Xolisa and 185 other members of the team, rode the Argus on March 13 dressed in the distinctive pink Sabrina Love shirt.

South Africa has an estimated 2.2 million mentally or physically disabled people (6 percent of the population) and while the country’s modern constitution recognizes their right to equal treatment, activists say the government, while providing social grants, has failed to streamline regulations to elevate their standing.

Figures show that South African households with a disabled person lag behind on every lifestyle benchmark: access to education but also piped water (78 percent compared to 85 percent of the general population), electricity (62 percet compared to 70 percent) and employment (19 percent against 35 percent).

Groups fighting for their rights say that, given United Nations assertions that 80 percent of the world’s 500 million disabled people live in developing countries, South Africa should lead the way in improving conditions for its disabled.

Lubner says Xolisa’s story is fairly typical of a black or ’’colored’’ (mixed-race) South African, born in a shanty town. ’’Xolisa’s mother died when he was a baby. His father did not have the capacity to take care of him so he ended up living with a relative and six or seven other children in a small room. One of our field workers found him.’’

Tracing children in need is one of the greatest challenges faced by Sabrina Love. Eight years since its inception, the charity handles the practical needs of 60 children in and around the small seaside resort of Plettenberg Bay, including 27 mentally and physically disabled youngsters who attend its daycare center.

’’When we started, we struggled to find children in need,’’ said Lubner. ’’We knew they were out there but families kept them secret because, culturally, many people feel that a disabled child is a poor reflection on them.’’

Lubner does not know the full details of how Xolisa lost his feet but it is believed they were attacked by gangrene when he was 5 and amputated. After the charity found him in 2008, it first bought him a wheelchair, then arranged for ’’fairly crude’’ boots and crutches. Next came a series of operations to allow Xolisa to be fitted with fibreglass prosthetic feet. Finally, using money raised by cyclists in the 2010 Argus and thanks to Lubner lobbying a range of specialists to give their services for free, Xolisa received his carbon fibre prosthetics in October last year.

’’They cost us about 60,000 rands [$8,700] but the exercise, had we paid the full price for everyone’s time and skill, would have come to close to 200,000 rands [$29,000],’’ said Lubner.

Xolisa’s lighweight prothetics — made in Iceland by Ossur, the company that supplies South Africa's celebrated ’’blade runner,’’ Oscar Pistorius — have ankle and toe joints and are fitted to shin guards that strap onto his lower legs.

’’I asked for the shin guards to be yellow and green, the colors of the South African national soccer team,’’ said the teenager who was the coach of a local children’s team until he went into training five months ago for the Argus.

Before the race, Xolisa had said only that he hoped to finish the hilly and often wind-blown road circuit. His coach, Wiseman Magugu, 46, was aiming for a best possible time of six hours, and cautioned that the youngster had only ever cycled 50 miles in one stretch. Dozens of cyclists drop out of the gruelling race every year due to crashes, mechanical trouble or sheer exhaustion.

The Cape Argus was won by South African professional Tyler Day in a record time of 2 hours, 32 minutes and 10 seconds. Xolisa, flanked by Magugu, crossed the finishing line after 5 hours and 10 minutes – ahead of thousands of able-bodied adults.