Articles

Amputee Sprinter

October 19, 2019


♪[intro music]♪ He’s one of the world’s top Paralympic
sprinters, silver medalist in Beijing. An amputee, Francis Kompaon sprints
100 meters in just 11.1 seconds. ♪[drums]♪ I just want to go and beat this. Everybody, that’s it.
That’s almost the thing in my mind. ♪[ethereal flute music]♪ His home of Papua New Guinea is one
of the least explored parts of the earth. Despite having only one arm, he’s
adapted to to the tough terrain, and earned the respect of the hunters and
gatherers that populate these islands. You have to be physically fit to survive because
most of the people who survive here, they do physical work. They have to
do with both hands and legs. Francis is a hero to his countrymen. [laughter] He’s the first person from Papua New
Guinea to ever stand on an Olympic podium. [laughter and talking] But the rest of the world knows very little
about this shy silver medalist. It’s a land few Westerners travel to,
even fewer guys in wheelchairs. ♪[drumming]♪ Only by visiting Papua New Guinea will we
truly understand where Francis has come from, and
the massive impact his medal has had on his life and future. We’re going via Australia and on to Port Moresby. Papua New Guinea has a wild reputation. Because of recent political unrest,
caution is recommended. ♪[energetic marimba music]♪ It’s the last of three flights. I’m heading to Francis’s village on
the island of New Britain, a two-hour plane journey east of Port Moresby.
New Guinea feels like a forgotten land. In some parts,
cannibalism is still practiced. There are hardly any roads, just one
from the airport to where Francis lives. There are no
turn-offs for an hour and a half. If we needed a reminder that
we’re in the third world, this is it. We’re traveling on what’s been described
to us as the “good road,” but it’s 4-wheel-drive access only. This place is where it’s washed out.
It’s constant potholes. just coming in here to this part of the
country, it feels like it’s barely accessible for someone who’s able bodied,
let alone someone with a disability. Francis’s home is in the village of Longalonga.
It’s hard to get a feel of how many people live here. Simple
shacks serve as houses tucked in the bush. Most have no power or running water.
They survive on subsistence farming. Francis lives with extended family. His young wife, new born son
and mom all share a home. Francis is one of very few people
with a disability in his village. He was born with a malformed left arm, and
the surrounding muscles are wasted. So tell me what it was like growing up
in the village here with a disability, or growing up in Papua New
Guinea with a disability. Growing up with a disability is a bit hard. People with disability has to struggle for themselves. There are no services for people with
disabilities here. It was just up to Francis’ family to do
what they felt was best. The communities support the
people with disability and mostly the families and immediate relatives
of the person and…yeah. We’ve caught Francis before
his morning bath taken in the ocean, rinsed off using the village well. As a child here, Francis watched other
kids climb their first trees with ease, mimicking the men in the
village, hunting and fishing. But Francis had to find his own way. During the time I was a kid,
it was just like a talent. They say that you can’t do it. I have to
sit back and think, “Okay, I can manage that thing by doing this, and
doing that.” So I tried different ways. ♪[ethereal music]♪ Francis was a lean, active child.
He rose to the challenge of living with disability. ♪[ethereal music]♪ His mom also knew that her
son had to keep up with the other kids if he was to
survive in this harsh land. What was Francis like when he was growing up? He was like a person who understands
and picks up things very quickly. $$ [Hedwig Kompaon] Were you the one pushing him to succeed? Yes, yes. Was that part of your parenting? Yes, yes. Tell me how you did that. I talked to him kindly and I tell him
to do things that he must do in a way that he can do it.
So he always listened to me. He do things
that I tell him to do. What was it like for you
when Francis was born? Nearly everybody felt sorry for him
because he was born disabled. The people in Francis’ village have
never seen a wheelchair outside of hospital, and
my white skin is a novelty. Are they surprised that I work? [speaking in native language] Yeah. They think that … yeah, they’re
surprised. They’re saying that they’re happy about you coming over
and they feel sorry for you, – Oh really?
-Especially…… yeah. They don’t need to feel sorry for me.
I’ve got a great life. [speaking in native language] Yeah, they were just asking about
how much you get paid for traveling over to see people [inaudible] [laughter] Because Francis’ village is remote, he had to
live away from home to attend high school. He made
his own way there each Monday, and back
home again on a Friday. The plane relic is one of
hundreds in this area. The island was used as a battleground by
Japanese and Australians in World War II. It’s here that
the desire to win first sparked. This is the track that you actually
use to train and compete on? Yeah. This is the track I’ve
competed in and I train in… The running track was marked up once,
but the lanes have long since faded. In here we don’t have any gyms.
It’s just basically training on a grass track and going out
to major competitions. And how does that make you
feel now, that you’ve achieved without all that sports
attraction, without everything laid on? Kind of big, big achievement. You know,
running from a grass track, and… I mean training on a grass track,
and then going to an international event like the
Paralympics, and winning that medal, it’s a great achievement in my
life. It’s just like…I just want to compete. I just want to try to compete
with the rest of the world and see how I am fast to
the rest of the world and see… Initially he ran just to
beat the kids in his village. When he got to high school, he
entered the school running race. He had no idea how he’d do. I was telling myself that, “Francis why
don’t you just go in and try it? Try.” “You might come out to
be somebody. Just try it.” I learned, even, I think of becoming
somebody, but just want to try it out. ♪[drums, marimba]♪ And they were saying to me that,
“You can’t be running 100 meters because” “that’s too fast, and you are one arm.” ♪[drums, marimba]♪ In my mind I just think, “I can do that.
I run a pretty good race.” ♪[drums, marimba, reed instrument]♪ And then one afternoon…I raced this
way up here. I got first, you know, 100 meters. Is this
for real, or just faking? And then all the teachers, “No, no,
Francis. You can’t do that. You’re just joking.” You’re going to go run again with
the other guys, but not your age, Some other older guys. I tried it,
and then I got first place again. ♪[drums, marimba, reed instrument]♪ Do you think people
underestimate you? Definitely, yeah. Most of the time in
situations where they think I can’t do it, I can’t manage that thing, to do that.
But I think I can because I’ve got ways around to handle those things
like able-bodied people can do that. Francis has made a rare
move into the wider world. Most people born in
Papua New Guinea never leave. ♪[percussion]♪ Longalonga is his village and
Katavant, this is his closest town. And we’re here just to check out the
markets and see what life’s like here. ♪[chimes, marimba]♪ The stained red lips you see everywhere
are from chewing betel nut. It’s a mild but addictive narcotic. ♪[chimes, marimba]♪ Hello! These are mangoes? Mangoes. Yeah? Can I buy some? I’m paying in the local currency.
Toya for the coins and kinat for the nuts. So they actually, they still trade in shells
over here in New Britain. Shells were widely used earlier throughout Papua
New Guinea but New Britain, they’re still using them. So I thought
I might get some shells for change. 60? – Okay, fifty… [native language] – Are they good?
– Yeah. – Fresh off the tree? – Thank you. – Thank you. All right, that’s lunch. Sixty Toya is about 20 cents and
buys me six mangoes. Dried coconut meat, called “copra,” is
the village’s export and main source of income. Francis was thrust into this work
when his father died suddenly. He had to grow up quickly. By the time
he turned 16, he was working to support his entire family. It’s grueling
work with very little reward. At the end of a long working
day, he’d take to the track. As his time steadily improved, Paralympics
Papua New Guinea took notice. They wanted him to compete, but he
didn’t even own footwear. I don’t have any spikes on. I was like
“I didn’t even have spikes on” and I was going to travel to another province from
here, and then they tell me, “Francis, I think you should have a spike.”
And the spikes here were sold for about 200 Kina
and I couldn’t afford to buy it for 200 Kina. So I had to beg my mom, had to go and do
copra again, get that 200 Kina and I went and first bought my…
I bought my first spiked shoes. Nobody even wears shoes around here,
so no one could understand why Francis would spend the equivalent
of one and a half year’s wages, 18 New Zealand dollars, on a pair
of spiked running shoes. [native language] Francis got the break he’d
been waiting for in 2006. ♪[ethereal music]♪ The Papua New Guinea Commonwealth
team heard rumors of his speed and insisted he join their
elite team in Melbourne. ♪[ethereal music]♪ It was the first time Francis had
ever left the country, let alone flown on a plane. He’d spent
his entire life trying to prove that he was worth something.
Now he had an opportunity bigger than anything he’d ever imagined.
He knew it might change his life, but he had no concept
of the world beyond. It was a big culture shock for me,
I see, oh, I saw like the big cities. That was the first time to seen it…
I couldn’t believe it. I went there for about…no more
than two weeks. And I stayed there. When I came back, I was
telling stories for 3 to 4 weeks, like almost a month, telling stories
to everyone what I see. To the little thing, I was telling
them stories about even the planes. I was telling stories about the
plane because it was all new to me. Two years on, he won that
Paralympics Silver medal. That was my first Paralympic games
and also it’s the first-ever medal in Papua New Guinea
to be in either a Paralympics, or the Olympic level, that high level.
In Papua New Guinea, no one has ever got a medal, and no one
has ever come close to come to the finals. And also I was qualified on
merit into Beijing Paralympics. So it was quite a good achievement.
I think, in the Paralympics all over the Pacific, I am the first one.
So I am excited. That’s my name in history
here in Papua New Guinea. ♪[drums]♪ Having no arm might seem
insignificant, but a sprinter’s arms are vital for power and
balance at high speed. Most of Francis’ competitors
have either a prosthesis or a longer stump
to help with balance. ♪[drums]♪ To compensate for his missing arm,
Francis has developed an unconscious lean, causing
a curve in his spine. Francis, it’d be good if you can just tell us
what muscles you do and don’t have. I do have these muscles on, these ones,
the back and the shoulder on the right side, but I don’t
have it on the left side. This one, the one on the top,
and at the back. So you don’t wear a prosthetic? At the moment if they put a prosthetic
here, I think it’s not like… my own point of view, it’s like it’s
going to be hard because you have to have an artificial joint on a prosthetic,
and it’s going to be hard work for me. So does that put you at a disadvantage
to the other runners? Kind of disadvantage because other runners
now… most of them are running with their prosthetic arms on, and
they can run well and pretty good at it. But it’s only a matter of training
because I’ve seen other athletes do their running without
prosthetics, but they still run fast. Phones are few and between here, and
the internet? Forget it. Still, news travels fast. Francis
tells us that already news of our visit, that we’re
here filming with him, has traveled to the
other side of the bay. When Francis won his medal, news
traveled clean across the island. Francis made headlines, but he
had no means of telling his wife, Milsen, directly. She had to read
about it in the paper. Where were you and
how did you find out? I was at my father’s home. We were
in the garden. Then $$ [Milsen Kompaon] my cousin’s sister ran up and told
me that, “We saw Francis on the paper,” And I was screaming,
“Oh, that’s nice.” It was amazing. That 11-second race transformed Francis’ life. The government rewarded him with
the equivalent of 100,000 New Zealand dollars, allowing him
to build a house that’s basic by Western standards,
but here, it’s a large home. And I get an elevator in for the wheelchair? [laughter] So this is it. This is great man. I mean, how important
is it to be able to provide and build this house for your family? I liked building this house for my family.
Really hard for people with disability in Papua New Guinea to
come to this stage and build a house like this because you have to
have enough money to. but yeah, I tried my best and
I just managed to build this house. His home is just a few unfurnished
rooms. There’s no kitchen, bathroom or electricity.
But it’s solid and he’s proud. Yeah, this society is like, the male
has to provide for all the family. If you’re a father or if you’re
somebody elder, you have to provide. So a house
is very important in this society so I decided to build one. He has provided security for his
family. The money has also allowed him to attend university. He’s
studying commerce in Australia. His wife and family remain home in his village. Were you there when your son was born? No I wasn’t there. Actually I was
in Golgo studying. And then they called me up and told me I got a baby boy. But to take advantage of his
success, he’s had to sacrifice time with his family
and his village life. ♪[ethereal music]♪ You’re studying now. You’re coming
out of Australia with a degree. do you feel pressure to come
back here and use your degree? Of course, yeah. I’m just thinking
of coming back to Papua New Guinea and I still haven’t decided
which way I’m going to go. His heart is here. He’d love to live a simple
life here in the village, but there’s pressure and he feels
he owes it to his country to take a leadership role in the city. Do you feel you’re a role model? Yeah, kind of. Role model…some people know me,
people who I don’t know. They could just come up to me and shake my hand
and then call my name, and I say, “okay,” yeah.
I appreciate it like, “Oh, cool.” I don’t feel like I’m somebody
up there. I just want to be humble. ♪[drums]♪ Francis raced in part to
change his life, to be the best, but what he didn’t realize is
the impact his win would have on his country’s
seven million people. He’s the first and only
international medal winner. ♪[thunder]♪ ♪[drums beating]♪ He’s gone from being the
kid that everyone felt sorry for to a national hero. There’s
even a serious call for Francis to
become a future prime minister. ♪[church choir]♪ Because we are put in the eyes of men, They see my name, like,
“Oh, okay, Francis is going to this place.” Hope he’s going to win a medal.” ♪[church choir]♪ It’s like they want me to achieve because
I’ve achieved, already, something. ♪[church choir]♪ It’s competition. Anybody can win. But people here, they just
want to see good results ♪[church choir]♪ Those are like people that see me and
they just want me to be prime minister, a member of
parliament. I just want to be somebody involved in…
just an ordinary citizen. All over the country, Francis is adored. But most of all, they want him
to win another medal. What was it like when he won? Oh, we were overjoyed,
we were happy for him. He put our country on the map,
on the global scale. People happy [inaudible].
They say he’s a good one. He can run. The entire city was on our toes. We are
very proud that, at least somebody from our nation, somebody
has put the nation on the world map. I just don’t want to let the country down. Francis is heading to New Zealand, to the IPC World
Athletic Champs being held in Christchurch. It’s the most important event before
the London 2012 Paralympics. Seatbelts fastened as a precaution,
should we encounter unexpected turbulence. ♪[dramatic music]♪ He’s trying not to focus on
the fact his family, village, and entire nation
have great expectations. ♪[dramatic music]♪ He ran a personal best of 11.1
seconds in Beijing two years ago. He now has to run faster to win
a medal here in Christchurch to qualify for the London Paralympics
and maintain the life he now leads. His competitors are part of
large delegations with their own physiotherapists, sports psychologists,
and other support staff. Francis has just an Australian-based coach
and that trusty pair of spiked shoes. ♪[dramatic music]♪ Francis is ranked number one
going into this race. When athletes line up on the track, the only
thing that separates them are the lanes they’re in, and
the flag of their country on their chest. But now we understand just how
diverse their backgrounds are. ♪[dramatic music]♪ There’s tremendous pressure
for him to perform, a humble guy who has
somehow become a hero. [cheers] It was his best race of the season, but he crosses the line in fifth place. [cheers] The Brazilian winner sets
a world record of 11.01 seconds. Congratulations! Francis hasn’t qualified for London this time. He’ll have his work cut out
for him in the next 12 months, if he’s going to make it
to the Paralympics. ♪[ethereal music]♪ So how do you feel? I don’t really…well, guess I missed out
and was hoping for something good. But that happen… people run
really fast and I just come in like that. ♪[ethereal music]♪ After his disappointing finish,
he returns home to his village with less fanfare this time. It’s a short
break before university begins, and he’s back into his
tough training schedule. The competition is sharper
than expected, but his motivation is strong. Sport
is the ticket to his bold new life.

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