Whistling a pint of blonde on the terrace on one of the rare Parisian summer days has its charm, perhaps even more than running in an empty stadium. But to choose, Jean-Baptiste Alaize would still have preferred to defend his chances at the Tokyo Paralympic Games, which have just seen their epilogue. He was rejected by his federation: a sporting choice according to official channels, but political for the person concerned, who has never been afraid to pin the authorities for their lack of support for the disabled cause, while with 54 medals in Japan, the Blues are well beyond tenth place in the ranking of nations.
It is therefore revolted, but with the hindsight of the boy who once lost mother and leg in an attack by Hutus in the northeast of his native Burundi, that Jean-Baptiste Alaize evokes his life course, From hell to light – title of his book published by Michel Lafon on August 26 – and his expectations for disabled sports by 2024.
Before your book, there was the Netflix docu, Rising Phoenix, with this great intro where Paralympic athletes are presented as bionic and badass superheroes. It slams …
Yes, and that’s why we used the same poster as the film. But in the documentary, we don’t really go into detail. For example, I see the problems we have in France being black and disabled, or different. The difference is not accepted and it really pisses me off to see that we are either singled out or seen as monsters.
As an individual, do you think you’ve been lucky?
My parents adopted me, they came from a village of 400 inhabitants. They could have been racist, they could have refused a disabled child… When they were about to adopt me, the director of the orphanage told them “you know that your child is not whole”? To which my mother replied: “If tomorrow I had an eight month old child in my womb and found out that he had a missing leg or an arm, I wouldn’t have rejected him. They took me as I am and that’s the way it should be.
How much did your adoptive parents participate in your reconstruction?
They played the role of parents of a child with great difficulty. I arrived in France with a life to rebuild, a haunted life. I was not an easy child. I thought I would go home once I got my prosthesis. We had to explain that Danièle and Robert were a family and that I was never going to go back to the past. It shocked me. The shrink told me that I will never be able to draw a line from my past. It was therefore necessary to learn to live with it and to forgive. Imagine forgiving people who did what they did. But we had to move forward quickly.
Did sport help you a lot in this headlong rush?
My parents put me in sports to help me let off steam. I played football, rugby. But football was complicated, when I tackled the other little ones I broke my shins. The kids didn’t want to play with me anymore (laughs). Rugby, the same. Then we tried horse riding. Man and horse are great therapy. I did it up to gallop 6 and I even finished 6th in the French championships. I was the only African finalist, out of 1,500 riders there were only whites (laughs). I was a bit of Django, what.
In the book, you explain that you hid your prosthesis for a long time, especially in college, because you felt you already had enough labels like that.
I already had a hard time living the difference related to my color. In college, I was doing cinema. I didn’t want to show that I was limping, I walked like everyone else, I still had my pants on. Already that I am black, if in addition we knew that I was handicapped, I said to myself that it would make even more problems. One day, we have the College Games and we do a 4x100m. I was placed as the last torchbearer, and before the last handover we were 4th or 5th. I had without really knowing it in the spirit of competition and I ended up catching up with everyone. My teacher advised me to join an athletic club and I listened to him. I registered in Montélimar.
Is it the real trigger for you?
At the athlete, I immediately had a strange feeling. My coach asked me to do a few laps of the field to see what I was worth in terms of cardio. So I do one lap, two laps, three laps… And I realized that no one was catching me. I was haunted for a long time by the war scene of my mother and me where the Hutus were chasing us. We had barely been able to do 40 meters when they caught up with us. They were, six, seven guys.
The Hutus picked up everyone in their path. I must have witnessed my mother’s beheading before they hit on me. My whole right side is mutilated, arm, head and back [en plus de la jambe]. I was stunned, I fell unconscious, no one was there to stop the bleeding. I came to myself I don’t know how long after, but with the impression of having returned to another life. Part of me is gone, the other has come back. My real first name is Mugisha and Jean-Baptiste, my adopted name. I have the impression of living with two personalities.
Did these field trips still bring you a little peace?
Running ten laps on the track realizing that the Hutus were not catching up with me… I got rid of all these problems on the track. I felt more free. The first night’s sleep after this session was the best in years. I slept without flashback. I had found my therapy. Running to escape.
What is your track record in athletics?
I was first departmental and regional champion with able-bodied long jump and other disciplines. I was running with my walking prosthesis. I did not know the luxury of the blade with the spatula.
When does this blade arrive?
At 14-15 years old. It was when I qualified for the Under 23 World Championships that I started to get help to buy the prosthesis. But it cost 15,000 euros. If you want to run with a disability, you have to pay. This is not covered by the security, unlike walking prostheses. It’s not normal. The message sent is that to run with a disability, you have to pay. We are sad about our handicap, about our experience. If you want to run, you don’t have to pay 15,000 euros. A small object, like that, which costs the price of a car …
This blade, you explain it in the book, it is necessary to change it, to maintain it. It all comes at a cost too. There is still room for a profit, after a little over ten years of career?
I got good results and did good things for my country. But I am on my own, I have no support from my federation or from the government. It’s a job, all the same, to represent your country at the highest level. I fought for a long time to find sponsors, but we do not receive enough media coverage for them to invest large sums in disabled athletes. If I had a contract with certain brands up to 50,000 euros, you should know that my prostheses cost 30,000.
For the federates, a little less than 5,000 euros was already the end of the world. The able-bodied, when they compete, they get bonuses for victory and participation. We always have to spend. I’m not doing all of this to be indebted to me but I just ask that we be recognized for our true worth. My federation never told me “we’re proud of you”, whether for “Rising Phoenix” or for the medals.
Did you follow the Tokyo Paralympic Games?
Having been boycotted by my federation, I did not want to follow the Olympics. The day I learned that I was not going to the Olympics, July 6, I was alone with my non-sport friends. It did something to me. I served my country, my team and today I’m kicked out like a shit. It is as if something had been ripped from me.
Concretely, why are you not selected for these Games?
It’s political. I said in the media that the government and the federation were not helping us financially. And if that continued, I would take off and go where people were interested in me. The final, I watched it. Gold was out of reach, but for the rest, I had my place. So the argument that I couldn’t aim for the podium… I jumped 7m14, the 2nd is 7m38 and the 3rd is 7m08. And we dared to say that I did not have the level. I’ve been through the war before and I don’t want to do it again, but I want things to be changed. I would like us to have a better generation for Paris 2024.
What are you waiting for, for Paris 2024?
Everyone is worried. We are supposed to be followed financially for six years. I say six years because in 2012, I had spoken to a lot of English athletes and the guys had started to be supported to be at the top of the top six years before the London Olympics. We are overdue. But it’s not just the Games to review …
That is to say ?
The French championships in Albi this year, it was something. We had no water, nothing to take shelter when it was not possible to heat up. Then, when we got to the call room, we were forced to arrive in uniform, ready. Except that I have a prosthesis which is exclusively made to go on tartan. If I put it on concrete, I break everything. On top, there are spikes, it is not made to walk on. But they don’t care, they still made us walk on asphalt. And then how can you change your prosthesis standing on one leg? There was no consideration for us. We are talking about a competition dependent on a federation, all the same.
There is a lot of bitterness …
I’m trying to change things. Everything should be reset. Today, I just want to denounce. Everybody. Even Sophie Cluzel, the Minister of Disability (sic). I did an interview for The world, for which we had been invited to his offices at the Ministry. In this interview, she says that she would like me to work with her, in a way as a spokesperson for people with disabilities. I was happy, I said to myself, “why not”! I called back a month later, I ran into the secretary who told me: “I thought you wanted us to help you get back to Decathlon or McDonald’s”. I’m only starting to speak now, but I’ve been a top athlete since 2006, and since 2006 it’s the same.
Nothing has changed, really?
I have always been told “you’ll see, that will change”. I was lied to. If I had not fought for sponsors, if I had not forced, insisted, I would not be there. What can we expect for 2024? A collective movement? I do not believe it. When it comes to being united, oddly, there is no one left.