The Cambodian Paralympics volleyball team probably looked like just another tourist group lining up for a photograph in front of The Wentworth, a five-star hotel in Sydney.
Until they took off their artificial limbs and began waving them in the air in protest because the World Organization of Volleyball for the Disabled voted to eliminate standing volleyball from the Paralympics. Standing volleyball is the only sport in which Cambodia competes.
“It was such a hit,” said Chris Minko, a technical adviser with the team, sharing the story Wednesday as the team returned from the 2000 Paralympic Games.
“Every TV station in the country had it on that night. ABC, the national radio network, said Cambodia was the true gold medal winner of the Games.”
The world organization’s decision came as a shock to the Cambodians, who plan on hosting more than 140 nations at an International Paralympic Committee congress in Phnom Penh on April 25 to April 30, 2001.
“There were only eight nations on the board in Sydney that voted against the sport,” said Yi Veesna, secretary-general of the National Paralympic Committee of Cambodia. “They seemed to little understand what is going on in other nations. We can only hope that when the IPC congress meets, all the nations of the world will get the information they need, and the decision will be reversed.”
Germany and Australia began immediate protests, and the Cambodian delegation joined them. “It was a beautiful thing to watch,” Minko said. “Cambodians were involved in a democratic process, and the officials and players started to understand that it was okay to be protesting.”
Yim Vanna, a 32-year-old team member who stepped on a land mine in 1987, vowed the team would keep fighting. “I urge them not to delete this sport,” he said. “This is just the first step. There will be more countries in Asia heard from.”
If the world volleyball organization will not change its decision, the Germans will look into forming a new world standing volleyball association. Filing a lawsuit against the WOVD is also being considered, Minko said.
Germany won the gold medal in Sydney. Cambodia defeated Australia three games to two in the team’s final match to claim seventh place. The final game was a 20-18 thriller before a capacity crowd of more than 5,000.
Germany and Australia have already agreed to send teams to Phnom Penh during the IPC congress in April for an eight-team tournament designed as a none-too-subtle hint to the IPC that the sport should not be eliminated.