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By Julia Symmes Cobb
CARACAS, May 11 (Reuters) - Willy Martinez was a highly-ranked Venezuelan boxer at the age of 18 when an enraged man chopped off his hand with a machete.
Martinez’s boxing days were over -- but not his athletic ambitions. Now aged 27 and a father-of-three, he is training to qualify as a sprinter for the London Paralympics with the help of President Hugo Chavez’s socialist government.
“The machete appeared so quickly. When my hand was chopped off I didn’t feel anything, but there was blood everywhere,” he said, recalling the traumatic incident over a pre-training breakfast.
Martinez, who said he was defending a family member against a violent man, ran several miles for help at his parents’ house, but it was too late for doctors to reattach his hand.
His story is one of many harrowing tales among the South American nation’s Paralympics team heading to London in August.
The roughly 40-person team is grateful to the government of Chavez - a highly controversial figure who has polarized Venezuela but is credited with pouring unprecedented resources into grassroots sports.
Many of the Paralympians live in government-funded housing close to their training grounds in Caracas and receive a gamut of other benefits. The athletics team are guided by husband-and-wife Russian coaches with experience of that country’s famous Soviet-era sports programs.
“It’s a change from past governments - if you’d won an international award they would only say ‘well good, that’s your obligation’,” said Juan Valladares, a wheelchair racer who lost movement in his legs to polio when he was a baby.
“But with this government there is so much support, so much incentive. They’ve given us all the resources we need,” he added during a break in early morning training at a bustling stadium in west Caracas also hosting school groups and a soccer team.
Valladares is ranked first in the world in his category of the 400 metre race, and third in the 800 metres, according to the International Paralympic Committee.
He won two gold medals at the regional ParaPanAmerican Games in Mexico last year and Brazil 2007, but was hampered at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics due to a respiratory infection and a new racing chair he was unaccustomed to.
Stretching his legs a few feet away is fellow sprinter Samuel Colmenares, who lost one of his hands in a car crash when he was a teenager. Colmenares won a bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics in the 400 metre sprint.
“It is so emotional, to stand on the podium, to hear the national anthem of your country, it’s very happy, and makes you want to cry,” said Colmenares.
“To win a gold, that would be even better.”
The athletics team practices at least four hours a day, encouraged -- and occasionally playfully teased -- by their Russian coaches. Mikhail Poliakov trains the wheelchair racers, while his wife Elena Goncharova oversees the sprinters.
They came to Venezuela a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, lured by a contract offer at the sports ministry.
Neither had coached disabled athletes before, but Goncharova said that does not matter. “There’s no difference between conventional athletes and disabled ones - they’re the same, they’re my children,” she said, laughing.
Often criticised by Western nations on issues of rights and democracy, the Chavez government says its “massification” of sport, to expand participation and improve facilities, is an overlooked achievement during its 13 years in power.
Such is the commitment, said Venezuela’s Paralympic Committee president Ahiquel Hernandez, that the state even paid for Paralympic swimmers to go to Japan for speciality training.
“In Venezuela sports are a constitutional right. Since 1999 we’ve had dignified sports participation for the disabled,” she told Reuters. “For the government it’s an obligation of conscience.”
Despite government largesse, there are still plenty of practical challenges before the team reaches London.
All of the racing wheelchairs need to be replaced - Valladares’ has an ever-expanding crack in the frame.
That requires a trip north for the athletes to have their chairs specially fitted in the United States, but travel is complicated due to visa requirements and limited mobility.
These athletes, though, are used to overcoming obstacles - especially in a country which still has much to do for the disabled. Finding a subway station with a wheelchair elevator or simply crossing chaotic Caracas streets can be hard.
One of the wheelchair-bound athletes was unable to attend training for several days recently because a broken elevator meant she was trapped in her hotel room.
“Venezuelans need more education - people see you on the street and they don’t look at you as a normal person,” added runner Irene Suarez, who has been blind since birth. She placed in the top ten at two sprinting events in Beijing.
“The government has televised some disabled sports events,” she added, expertly lacing up her running shoes. “That helps get the message across that disability isn’t something that should be hidden, but something that, bit by bit, is going mainstream.” (Additional reporting by Carlos Rawlins, Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Patrick Johnston)