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Fit To Serve: The Disabled Frenchman Who Became A Soldier And Olympic Athlete

Djamel Mastouri was told as a child that he'd never walk again. He went on to become an Olympic champion and an accomplished French soldier.

Djamel Mastouri during a 1,500-meter run
Djamel Mastouri during a 1,500-meter run
Emmanuel Versace

PARIS — Since the age of three, Djamel Mastouri has suffered paralysis on one side of his body, a disabilty so severe that he was told as a child he would never walk again. But it would take more than that to defeat the Parisian son of a modest family of Tunisian immigrants. He went on to serve in the French Army and win a bronze medal in the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing.

At 41 — though he looks ten years younger — Chief Warrant Officer Mastouri recently competed in what will probably be his last world championship for disabled athletes. Of course, we've heard that before. After the Games in Beijing, he'd said they would be his last. But then he went on to compete in the London Games four years later where, because of an injury, he choked in the 800-meter semi-finals and finished a distant eighth in the 1,500-meter run. “For three months, I basically didn't talk to anybody,” he recalls. It was a unhappy time, an awful disillusion for someone whose sworn enemy is surrender.

When he was a kid, Mastouri had to face the cruel and gratuitous mockery from other children about his right-side paralysis that resulted from a blood clot in the brain. He made a decision early on to brave the merciless persecution and try to prove himself. “In sports, I was always the last one to be picked for the teams,” he recalls. “So I decided to become the best in everything: basketball, volleyball, handball… It was the desire to show others I was as good as them that gave me this strength.”

As a teenager, Mastouri followed in his brother's footsteps, quite literally, and decided to run track — “because my leg and my arm needed re-education, and it was not too expensive for my parents,” he explains. It turned out that he was better than his able-bodied competitors. As a junior, he became a 3,000-meter French champion. He was the runner-up in the 1,000-meter among the under-23s and was selected twice for the French national team, in the fit category.

“I’ve always overcome my handicap,” he says. “I was just like everybody else. As I was strong enough, I didn't think about playing parasports. With the fit ones, it was more aggressive. I thought it wouldn't be the same in parasports. In fact, at that time, I didn't know we could run in separate categories. I thought I would be running along blind people or amputees. I didn't feel I belonged there."

Then the army called

In 1992, his life changed dramatically when he was asked to fulfill his military obligations. Certain that his disability would disqualify him, he was flabbergasted when he was declared fit to serve. “I know how it feels to be looked at, and I did not want to experience that in the army,” he says. “I told them there must a mistake, but no. I appealed, and eventually in the Parisian military hospital, the Val-de-Grâce, among the 15 cases presented, everyone was discharged — except me!”

He does not know why the army accepted him, but it is rumoured that his athletic accomplishments influenced the decision. Once he joined the 8th Signal Regiment of Suresnes — south of Paris — he caricatured his disability in a last desperate effort to avoid being drafted. “I looked like Keyser Söze limping in the movie Usual Suspects!” he says. His dramatic effort was in vain.

He was told that he could simply work a desk job for about 10 months, but he refused. “It was against my principles,” he says. “Either I was discharged, or I did it giving my all. So I wanted to be the best. That’s what I tried to do, and at the end some still had no clue I was disabled.”

Two years later, he signed a contract with the army and served twice in Kosovo (in 2000 and 2001) for peace-keeping tasks. It was an unexpected and rich military career that still surprises him to this day. “Every time I run into a non-commissioned officer he tells me, "Mastouri, you know you should have never been here?" And I say, "Yes, I know, colonel, I don’t understand either."”

Breaking records, a new career

In December 2005, after he won the European championship, Mastouri was recognized as a high-level sportsman and was promoted to the regiment's sports office. He proceeded to win a series titles and break records in the serious hemiplegics category (legs and arms): six French champion titles and one European title in the 800 meters, and five national titles and an international one in the 1,500-meter run. He holds the French record for both distances, the indoor 800-meter world record and the world's second-fastest time in the 1,500-meter. The climax of his career came with a bronze medal at the Paralympic Games in Beijing.

In 2008, right after the Beijing Games, he was transferred to the athletic branch of the National Invalid Institution (CSINI) in Paris, where he is studying to become a sports instructor. The institution was created in 1996 to re-educate the thousands of soldiers who returned handicapped or traumatized from the Algerian war. In addition to disabled civilians, it also welcomes injured soldiers who fought in Afghanistan and, more recently, in Mali.

“It’s a real pleasure for me to see them doing sports, for leisure or even to compete,” Mastouri says. “And who knows? One day we might see them on the French team.” The goal is to rehabilitate the disabled and prepare them for the workforce rather than training high-level athletes. “Even though some French injured soldiers are involved in championships like the Wounded Warrior Project in the United States, they don’t yet have the required level to compete in the Paralympic Games or the Athletics World Championship for the disabled,” says Colonel Emmanuel Varlet, CSINI director.

Recently, Mastouri has been training at the Adolphe-Chéron Stadium in Saint-Maur-des-Fossés, near Paris, with his coach, Mohamed Boussif. After Mastouri's disappointing London performance, the coach witnessed his student and friend nearly throw his athletic career away. “In November, he was in his own bubble,” Boussif recalls. “It took me a while to get him out of it, and then he suffered a lung infection. Since then, he's regained confidence.”

Indeed, on July 14, Mastouri walked the Champs-Elysées as a guard for the flag-carrier of the French Inter-Army Sports School. “For me, that’s more important than the world championship," he says. “In the past, they got me out of the ranks because I couldn’t stretch my arm on the seam. So parading in this position is an honor for me as well as for all the disabled people, because it's the first time a handicapped person has done so.”

Clearly, this is a man who was right never to give up.

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