Colombia, a country at war for over 50 years, has one of the highest rates of landmine injuries in the world. For decades, landmine victims remained outside of the nation’s popular consciousness. Today, landmines and rehabilitation medicine profoundly shape public life. This photo essay critically explores the visual politics and problems with representation in the competitive arena of disability sports in Colombia. I include stills from my fieldwork and ethnographic film depicting soldier amputees who aspire to become star Paralympians and yearn to qualify for the London Olympics. In my fieldwork, soldiers incorporate industrial prosthetics into their bodies through strenuous daily exercises and talk about their dreams of not only walking “properly,” but also becoming agile sportsmen. Through interweaving text and video stills, a story unfolds about how commercial medicine, humanitarian activists, disability movements and the military mobilize individual masculine desires to be agile – how they arouse nationalist sentiments around human capacity, sportsmanship, and a “disabled” person’s ability to exceed “normal” human capacity. As much as Paralympic events inspire hopes for overcoming the adversities of war, they also displace the daily realities of landmine injury in Colombia that not only affect young agile men who can succeed in the Paralympics, but also many civilians who are women, children, and the elderly.
On Becoming a Colombian Paralympian, Image 1
The military league members wanted to gain support from Colombian citizens, but also sought to be active participants in commercial sports. They wanted to gain international celebrity status and unhinge themselves from the contradictions and idiosyncrasies that haunt Colombian warfare. Although most of the men actually did not lose their limbs from landmines, the article headline describes the soldiers as landmine victims. The spectacle of climbing Aconcagua brought awareness to Colombia’s landmine problem, but inadvertently obscured civilian men and elderly landmine victims who would never climb Aconcagua, or even perhaps dream of doing so.
On Becoming a Colombian Paralympian, Image 2
Colonel Cardona lost his left leg on December 15, 2000, when a guerrilla cylinder bomb exploded in a rural military battalion where he resided. After his injury, he sought a university degree in business and administration and became the Director of the Military Forces Disability Sports League and the National Military Office for the War Injured.
According to Cardona, the team’s aim was to honor Colombian military servicemen fallen in war. For his part, “the military was proud to show their heroes injured in combat not as disabled people, but sportsmen who could break records.” He also felt competitive sports would help soldiers better integrate into civilian life. Despite his advocacy of what he called “integrated” rehabilitation, Cardona seemed to express a kind of ambivalence towards “integration.” Since Cardona remained inside the military, he referred to civil society as “alla,” literally meaning “there.” Despite the fact that our conversation was in Bogotá and I was a civilian, his language consistently created a geographic divide between “here” and “there” as if civil society was a foreign country.
On Becoming a Colombian Paralympian, Image 3
“Man defying disability” constitutes a metanarrative where humanitarians, activists, and corporations alike make prosthetic objects heroic since they seemingly endow disabled men with extra-ordinary human capacities. David Harvey contends that under the conditions of neoliberalism, it is common for people to believe that technology can fix the destructive forces of capitalism: they often invest technology with fetishlike qualities.
The fame of double amputee runner Oscar Pistorius is one example of how non-disabled spectators imbue prostheses with troubling powers that put into question conventional meanings. The International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) disqualified Pistorius from the Beijing Olympics because his carbon running legs gave him an unfair advantage. Pistorius’ initial disqualification was so controversial that it made the front pages of newspapers around the world including The New York Times and Colombia’s El Tiempo. The IAAF determined that prosthetics were a new form of doping that needed to be carefully reconsidered. The Court of Arbitration for Sport later reversed the decision, but Pistorius did not compete since he failed to qualify for the South African team.
On Becoming a Colombian Paralympian, Image 4
Prosthetic companies are powerful entities that work in tandem with the automobile, petroleum, and carbon industries and have the ability to sponsor athletes and outfit them with their latest technologies. For example, Otto Bock Corporation is one of the sponsoring partners of the Paralympic Games. Their Paralympic motto “Sport is mobility. Sport is quality of life.” plays into the companies branding slogan “Quality for life.”
On Becoming a Colombian Paralympian, Image 5
One team member who had a brain injury could not use language appropriately, had poor social etiquette, and had difficulty with spatial orientation. He was not considered a competitive player among team members and although he participated in the qualifying event, he did not qualify for nationals. He was not regarded as a potential global champion. He wore no prostheses, aside from his bicycle, and his lack of focus gave him a wobbly and swerving cycling style on the velodrome. Amputees, in contrast, could potentially produce a unidirectional high speed cycling style if they practiced and had the will power to do it. Indeed, the fast speed of technological advancement makes prosthetic technologies seem to get ahead of themselves. It is only those who can keep up with the speed of technological advancement, who are able to make their already alienated bodies into valuable assets.
Unlike cognitive disabilities, limb loss is seen as repairable and even an attribute that can potentially enhance speed and endurance. When humans merge with machines, as they do with prosthetic limbs, the spectacle of enhanced capacities inspires awe. Corporate marketers are largely responsible for creating a spectacle around prostheses, but representatives of the nation-state support corporations in their efforts. One may suppose that neoliberalism and global trends towards privatization would result in a decline in nationalist sentiment. Sport, however, is an example where national fervor meets corporate power.
On Becoming a Colombian Paralympian, Image 6
Ramon (amputee cyclist): The only thing I worry about is falling.
Edgar (coach): You’re not going to fall. It’s all in how you push.
Carolina (physical therapist): You’re not going to fall.
Edgar: You’re not going to fall.
Ramon: I don’t know about that.
Edgar: What method has worked best for you? To go out in a regulated way or to go hard and maintain yourself?
Ramon: To go hard and maintain myself, or try to maintain myself.
Edgar: You’ll feel like you’re going to die, but that’s invalid. You won’t die.
Ramon: In the kilometer I won’t.
Edgar: Go out hard, hard, hard, hard like that.
Norbert Elias wrote that what people seek in sports “is not the release from tension but, on the contrary, a specific type of tension, a form of excitement often connected…with fear, sadness, and other emotions which we would try to avoid in ordinary life.”122 In sports, amputees do not seek a situation that mimics the ‘real’ event of loss or trauma in any exact way; rather they seek to arouse emotions that resemble those inspired by the event. Ramon was happy to participate in the cycling competition and told me “ I ask the almighty that the competition will go well for me, that I don’t have an accident and that I get good points.” Ramon was very concerned that he would fall off his bike and injure himself. Fear seemed to be a strong element in his preparation for the competition, even “a necessary ingredient of the pleasure” he derived from the sport. The velodrome was no minefield, but perhaps the velodrome provided Ramon a less dangerous field of experience to reenact and triumph over his fears.
On Becoming a Colombian Paralympian, Image 7
Carlos Alberto Maya, a civilian man injured by an IED, did not participate in sports or talk about becoming a Paralympian nor did he inspire media attention. Due to a major spinal cord injury, Carlos Alberto could not make vocal sounds. He spoke using his lips, hand gestures, and occasionally wrote in a notebook. His condition required constant care, which was delivered by nurses, his sister Maria, and his nephew Pablo Cesar. Carlos Alberto urinated into a bag. Tubes were inserted into his nose and tubes protruded out from his belly. He constantly had to clear mucus from his throat making a loud hiss that sounded mechanical. Different from Cardona’s dream of using rehabilitation as a way to transformed “disabled” persons into heroic athletes, Pablo explained to me that the explosion changed Carlos Alberto’s life completely. He told me, “It has been very difficult. You never become accustomed to this. This has changed the lives of our entire family.” Carlos Alberto’s family understood the severity of his condition and responded in a responsible and loving way, while not undermining the very real difficulties they faced collectively.
In an almost quixotic quest to conquer mountains, most people injured by war are pushed out to the sidelines – people like Carlos Alberto who has both of his limbs, but suffered such an extreme injury to his spine that he will most likely never walk again. Perhaps rather than basing self worth on an individual’s supposed ability to overcome all obstacles, we can better understand the ways radical disfigurement teach us that all bodies are limited, that in fact our desire to be “integrated” and whole selves is largely a fantasy based on violent dismemberment. “Enabling disability” through identity politics and stereotyped imagery satisfies people’s need to immediately place other people’s bodies into recognizable categories. In light of my research findings, it may be worth exploring the limits of representational politics, especially when most people who experience their bodies as “deformed,” “disfigured,” and “disabled” can’t successfully participate in popular forms of representation such as those offered by the disability sports movement.
Emily Cohen is a National Science Foundation Science, Technology, and Society postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University and at UCSD’s Department of Communication. She completed her PhD in anthropology at New York University where she also earned a certificate in Culture and Media. A filmmaker as well, Cohen recently began production for the documentary “Virtual War: Memories of Abu-Ghraib” which follows a group of Iraq veterans who are undergoing an experimental therapy to treat their Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Cohen’s documentary, “Bodies at War: A Colombian Landmine Story” is near completion.