17th November 2014

Whitehead Visits Syria

17 November 2014 

Recently, Richard Whitehead took some time away from the track to visit victims of war torn Syria, where the lives of nearly 200,000 people have been claimed in three years.  

The 38 year old visited the Ministry of Health hospital in Ar Ramtha on the border of Jordan, supported by Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) known as Doctors Without Borders. The treatment centre set up in 2013 looks after the victims bombings and shellings and has been responsible for treating more than 560 patients and performing over 1,700 surgical procedures for those most affected by the conflict.

Despite being born without legs, Whitehead has not let this get in the way of achieving success, collecting every major medal available to him in the sport. The Nottingham-born athlete has won all the major honours in athletics – world, European and Paralympic gold and world records over both 200m, half marathon and the marathon. All of this would not have been possible without his attitude towards his disability, which he passed on to those suffering in Syria.

“You’re dealt a set of cards when you are born and you just have to get on with it. I’ve done that,” said Whitehead, who runs with the aid of specially designed prosthetics.  

“When I was growing up my parents saw the power of sport as a great opportunity to bridge a lot of those social barriers and those obstacles that I’d have to overcome in my life. These would be lessened with the power of sport. I learnt to swim at four and competed at an able bodied gymnastics club until the age of 14. As I grew up I changed people’s perceptions of what a disabled person could and couldn’t do.” 

During his time in Syria, Whitehead spoke with a number of patients in the medical facility, including some of those who will require up to 30 operations to get them on the road to recovery.  Despite his numerous accolades in the world of sport, the GB & NI veteran expressed the importance of goals to overcome adversity.

“It is really important to have goals and aspirations in life no matter what your circumstances are. Here in this conflict situation, it’s about being positive and guiding people through the process of getting on their feet and getting them to their loved ones.”

Whitehead demonstrated his sheer grit and determination last year becoming the first double leg amputee to run from John O’Groats to Lands’ End, covering a marathon a day for 40 days. Inspired by American philanthropist Terry Fox, he raised over £300,000 for Sarcoma UK and Scope and considers sport as being “about the kind of impact and the legacy that you can leave on sport, and the people who are inspired by sport.”

Whitehead added: “And it’s really important that someone like myself can come and relate to their circumstances with my disability and some of the challenges I’ve had to overcome and I hope they take that from my visit.”   

One of many inspired by Whitehead’s story was Ali, a patient in Ar Ramtha who recently lost the lower part of his leg in Syria.

"He came from Britain to show us his prosthetics and encourage us. He told me he got used to his prosthetics and, inshalla [god willing], I will get my prosthetics and I’ll get used to it too."

Watch a short video on Whitehead’s visit to Syria here

You can follow Richard Whitehead on Twitter via @Marathonchamp