Theatre moves from Bird's Nest to lion's cage


ATHLETICS:FRENCH ATHLETE Djamel Mastouri, who won an 800 metres bronze medal at last year's Paralympics, is now far from Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium, taming lions at a Paris circus.

Mastouri, who has been training for weeks, will replace well-known lion tamer Frederic Edelstein for a special show at the Pinder circus tomorrow.

Eight acts will be performed by French disabled athletes during the show, called Handicircus Gala.

The show also features French artists and celebrities.

Finding acrobats and trapeze artists was not too hard, but picking a volunteer lion tamer was a different story.

"They (the show promoters) had six athletes in mind, but, when they saw the show with 18 lions, all the others stood down," Mastouri said.

The 36-year-old athlete suffers from hemiplegia, partial paralysis of one side of the body. When racing he does not use a wheelchair and he performs his circus act standing, though he cannot use his right leg or arm.

The idea of facing the big cats appealed to him straight away.

"I saw it as a unique occasion to live something truly exceptional," he said. "And if the lions eat a part of me, I'll do the next Paralympics as an amputee."

While Edelstein normally faces 18 animals, Mastouri has to deal with just three, two lions, Clarence and Starsky, and a tiger, Dixie.

Edelstein will watch from a distance, ready to intervene in case of a problem.

"When I first entered the cage, the animals felt immediately that I had a handicap," Mastouri said. "I had to go in there on my own to make sure they would not take advantage of my weakness.

"The adrenaline rush was similar to the one you get when you enter a packed stadium for a final," he added. "I felt suddenly very small. I had been told I should not be afraid, but I was scared because they kept staring at me."

Mastouri uses a stick, which he can manipulate only with his hand because of numbness in his arm, to make the animals raise their front paws and jump through a hoop.

"I must be careful because they could cut my arm off with their paws," he said. "I must never turn my back on them."

The fear, he said, had vanished.

"Now I'm so focused that I don't see anything around me. I even forget about my disability."