The para table tennis star shares with the Olympic Channel how he is changing the disability narrative in Sierra Leone by encouraging people living with disability to turn to sports instead of begging on the streets.
Sierra Leone weights of expectations rest easy on para-table tennis player George Wyndham.
He is one of only three athletes who have represented the West African nation at three editions of the Paralympic Games.
At Rio 2016 he was the first-ever para table tennis player to represent Sierra Leone at the Paralympics.
Frustration and disappointments weighed him down and he even considered quitting the sport.
But whenever he sees the desperation amongst people living with disabilities most who are beggars on the streets of the capital city Freetown, he realises that the onus is on him to inspire and find the next athlete to fill his shoes.
“My biggest worry is who will be next after George?” the 30-year-old put forward his concerns to the Olympic Channel.
“Where will Sierra Leone be in terms of representation? And will that be the end of Sierra Leone in para-table tennis or wheelchair athletics? This is what bothers me.”
Wyndham has not trained at all since the Sierra Leone government suspended all sporting activities in the country due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The months of inactivity worried him as he is ‘piled on weight’, but not as much as the cancelled competitions and putting hold his dreams of qualifying for the Paralympics.
He is anxious over his dwindling savings to support his wife, mother and two children. The Rio 2016 Paralympian heavily relies on the money he earns from his travel allowances for upkeep.
“My only source of income is sports. Whenever the Paralympic Association sends me to events, they give me some allowances and per diem,” he told the Olympic Channel from his home in Sierra Leone.
“Besides being an athlete, I also work as a coach I train people and they pay me some small money. That's how I earn my income and for the past three months nothing. I am having some constraints and just surviving on the small savings I had.”
Wyndham who contracted polio when he was young has kept busy.
He joined the fight against Covid-19 working with Sierra Leonean Emergency Operation Centre, EOC, to help in community sensitisation.
“I hated sitting at home doing nothing. I was happy to work with the EOC as a mobiliser to educate people and sensitise the communities about this coronavirus and how people can keep themselves from contracting it.”
Rallying people to action is something Wyndham enjoys.
The para table tennis star has been at the forefront of pushing for inclusion in sports.
It is estimated that about half a million people in the West African nation are people living with disabilities. Most like Wyndham are incapacitated by preventable diseases like polio while about 1,600 people suffered forced amputations during the brutal civil war between 1991 and 2002.
In Freetown most of the beggars on the streets are people with disabilities.
“The mentality we have in most African countries is the mere fact that if you are a disabled, you should be on the streets begging,” the double African bronze medallist noted.
“Here in Sierra Leone 90 per cent of disabled people in Sierra Leone are on the streets begging. That is a misconception I am fighting to change in my country.”
“Being disabled doesn't mean that we should be street beggars. Disability is not inability, and we can still do a lot for ourselves and our country as well.” -George Wyndham, Sierra Leone para table tennis player.
Disability has never been an obstacle for success for Wyndham.
His first contact with para table tennis was by chance when he was aged 16. Even as a wheelchair track and field athlete he struggled with the suggestion that he should try the sport.
“One day I went to the stadium to watch a football match and I saw people playing table tennis through a window.
"The coach who was training the team saw and asked me to go in and play. I clearly told him no, as I had seen the people moving from one place to another and as a disabled, I didn’t think I could move like them. He encouraged me, promised to teach and help me," he recalled.
“I got addicted to table tennis that sometimes I would even run away from school to play."
However, it was not until 2013, almost a decade after he began playing, that he faced a fellow para table tennis opponent.
“I would play at national tournaments and challenge able bodied athletes. All the other able-bodied players want to train with me because of how I defend and help them practice their strokes.”- George Wyndham.
“Even for me, the more I play against the able-bodied the more I improve. Even now I only play against disabled opponents outside Sierra Leone.”
In his first major competition, the 2013 African Para Championship, he took bronze in the men’s Singles Class 4. He qualified for the 2015 World Para championships but due to the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone he missed the event.
Living through the Ebola crisis that left over 3,500 people, kept him motivated and sharpened his resolve.
He made history by qualifying for the 2016 Paralympics, after javelin thrower Kelley Marah (Atlanta 1996) and sprinter Mohamed Kamara who competed at London 2012.
“I kept my head up and said, ‘the World Championships is past, the next target is Paralympics’. I knew the only thing that will make me very happy in my career is to be a Paralympian. And in 2016 I achieved my dream. It was my biggest experience and pleased at the chance to showcase myself and gain exposure,” he recalled.
His joy was short-lived. Frustrated by sports administrators in his country, he considered quitting the sport.
It battered his enthusiasm, but his initial resolve never slipped.
“I wanted to quit. But every time I thought about quitting, I kept thinking, ‘I’m the only disabled athlete they have in Sierra Leone that plays table tennis very well and even challenges the able-bodied,"said Wyndham who represented his country in Para athletics at the 2015 African Games.
"If anything happens to me, now, let’s put retirement aside, who will be next after George? Will that be the end of Sierra Leone in Para table tennis or wheelchair athletics?’ This is what bothers me." George Wyndham.
He returned home from Brazil with a new title, Paralympian, but little has changed in his life.
He still lives at the stadium where he trains and has converted one of the offices to his home.
“I have been living at the stadium for 10-12 years. I have to pay rent of about $400 per year and at that time I have to be a beggar. It is not a dwelling place. I am here because of the ease of access for my training and sports facilities.”
“I am the most decorated athlete in table tennis, but even with these medals I just have the name as the most decorated athlete. There is nothing to show for it."
"I can’t say this is what the government has done for me or that individual has done for me. I am just struggling and fighting on my own,” he lamented.
“But as the saying goes don’t ask yourself what your country has done for you but what you have done for your country? I have a genuine love and heart from my country.”
The dedication for his country and passion for para table tennis, the third largest Paralympic sport in terms of athlete numbers, keeps him going.
Just as he bounced back after the Ebola virus outbreak, he is optimistic that he can make history once again after the current pandemic in 2021.
But he's more inclined towards leaving a legacy one shot at a time by helping grow para table tennis in the country.
“I am still dreaming of Tokyo Paralympics. That is the thing that is always in my mind. I want to do this so that I can inspire more people living with disability, to avoid streets begging and turn to sports as a career."
"I want a Sierra Leone where they will say George is retired from sports but there are four or more people living with disability that will replace George.
“I now have three people with disability who have left the streets and joined me so that I can train them to play table tennis”
There are no limits for George Wyndham just barriers to be broken.