Paralympia: "there is no such thing as a run-of-the-mill human"

I thought nothing could surpass the sunny uplift of the Olympics but I was wrong.

When the Olympic Games finished (with that disappointing squib of a closing ceremony) I felt the days deflate. I had been borne aloft for two weeks on the wings of something really special: amazing, young athletes who were modest and gracious showing everyone how hard work, aspiration and teamwork are the things that should be put up on pedestals and celebrated.

London was blessed with rare sunshine, the volunteers were almost as beloved as the athletes, the organisation went without a hitch. I have never experienced such a feeling of uplift in the city. Then when the Olympic flames were extinguished the clouds came again and we all thought that the fizz had gone out of our lives.

But hail the Paralympics! If we all thought that the Olympics were uplifting then we weren’t reckoning on the sheer overwhelm of the P-Games.

Leaving aside the amazing backstories of most of the athletes, the actual sporting events are so great there is no need for sentimentality to keep us glued to our screens.

First off, it’s like watching a whole new universe of sports or sports we thought we knew through a thoroughly new lens. Swimming up and down a pool with all your limbs seems dull after a week of Paralympic swimming where there are so many gob-smacking variations on that simple theme: swimming with no arms, with no legs, with one of each, with one side paralysed.

And what two weeks ago might have seemed freakish has effortlessly and gracefully become standard.

That is surely the greatest magic of these games. It has in one luscious wave lifted us all out of unconscious ignorance into a deep, unfussy appreciation of other human beings whatever their make-up. As Stephen Hawkings said in the poetic Opening Ceremony: there is no such thing as a run-of-the-mill human.

One of the great things about these games, and particularly Channel Four’s coverage of them is the utter lack of mawkishness and the level-headed enjoyment of their superhuman skills. There is a late night show, called The Last Leg, which has a laugh at the days events and ponders all the social niceities of talking about disabled athletes (“is it ok to crouch down when having a picture taken with the short stature gold medallist, Ellie Simmonds?”) and the brilliant double act of Clare Balding and Adi Adepitan in the anchor studio explaining the intricacies of the various classes and the various sports.

It’s such a joy to feel any residual discomfort or awkwardness around disabled people quickly transform into slack-jawed admiration. Half and hour of watching Wheelchair Rugby (or Murder Ball as it’s known in the States) is enough to drive any soft-focus sentimentality out of the window. And the perception-shift that happens naturally when you start watching Goalball (played in silence so the visually-impaired players can hear the bell-ball) or Sitting Volleyball or Guided Sprinters is amazing.

And that is going to be the thing we look back on. No Paralympics has ever been as completely covered as these Games, neither have they ever been sold out like here in London. Up until 2012 the Games have always been a rather neglected bolt-on to the glory-drenched main games (or ‘Dull’ Olympics as the host on the Last Leg calls them).

I was initially outraged that NBC in the States weren’t broadcasting any of the Games apart from 5 hours of highlights at the end (despite the States having such a large and powerful Paralympic team) but then I remembered how dilatory the coverage of the Beijing Paralympics had been here in the UK in 2008.

Hats off to Channel Four for their witty (“Thanks for the Warm Up” was their poster campaign the day after the Dull Olympics finished) and pitch-perfect coverage of these Superhuman days.

It’s one of those moments in a country’s history that change the way society thinks in a profound way. The strong swell of disapproval against the current Coalition government’s brutal cuts on disability allowances is part of a tectonic shift in the way Britain relates to the disabled. Just as Mo Farah’s Olympic gold was a shift in the way we think about asylum seekers and British Muslims.

Of course, I’m all giddy with the golden glow flowing out of the Stadium on my doorstep, but I do think we will look back with amazement at these summer weeks of 2012 and be glad.

6 Comments

  1. Lesley

    September 7, 2012 at 10:15 am

    Well said sir. Very well said.

  2. Chris Chalmers

    September 7, 2012 at 11:32 am

    …they feel like a sea changing thing. Like u I thought it was all over after the Dulls. If anything I am enjoying these more. When winners interviewed I feel like they react the way I would react. Able bodieds seem like over drilled media trained automatons by comparison. Sad thing is that paralympians will prob end up same way as they go mainstream. But for now they are just adorably real human beings. Also jonnie and Oscar are hot as hell…

  3. CCsw19

    September 9, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    [Tried to post this already, see if it works this time…]

    I really thought it was all over when the Dulls came to an end. Had no idea how sucked into these games I was going to get. To the extent that yesterday, stuck in bed with flu (proper flu, I tell you!), i had a rare old time flicking between four online streams of paralympic sport from C4 (3 of them delightfully free of adverts).

    This feels like a seachanging thing to me – you can’t watch them without seeing disabled people differently. But aside from all the headline heroics of hotties like Johnnie and Oscar, the event that sent my jaw south was a GB v USA match in the wheelchair tennis doubles. One of the USA guys was in an electric wheelchair, hands very twisted but still managing to operate the stick shift with one and his racquet with the other… How the hell is going to serve, I wondered..? Simple. He picked up the ball between his feet and tossed it. I didn’t see him miss a single serve. And they beat us, dammit.

    Astonishing. That above all else told me that life should be about what you can do, not what you can’t. And the sheer delight of the medalists when they’re interviewed, when they react so naturally and free of media-trained psychobabble, made them feel much more real than their able bodied counterparts. I kept thinking, “That’s just how I’d be feeling!”

    Loved it, loved it. Paralympics were the event of the year, bar none… Now, anyone for a bit of Premier League…?

  4. Martha Mc

    September 11, 2012 at 6:43 am

    Hello Alistair,

    It has certainly been a Great Olympics and Paralympics.
    You have such a gift with words,and I cannot even come close to expressing all that you have said so well.

    As I waited for this essay..I wondered if it would be about the paralympics,and I couldn’t wait.And you delivered a most excellent view and insight ,that would give pleasure to someone that has never even seen one event.

    I saw some of the events…and they were amazing.Everyone involved were amazing.London did a GREAT job. Its a Great time to be British,and I am so proud.
    To top it all..Andy Murray has just won the US Open. The first man in 76 years to win a Tennis Grand Slam.

    Your appreciation and sheer Joy of the paralypics,Or any Event for that matter,that you express in your own words ,brings a smile to my face and a tear to my eye.
    Now , Thats My kind of writer.

    How I wish I had found your blog years ago.
    Its too late to comment on past essays now,but your Ayahuasca experiences fascinated me. You are very brave. I would not have the courage to face past demons ,again !

    My respect and best wishes to you,Alistair,

    Martha.

  5. Jonathan D. Binns

    September 13, 2012 at 5:36 pm

    A nice uplifting view of the summer of olympics Alistair, particularly the Paraolympics.It has been the best ever one telivised.G.B showed them how to support disabilities.
    And it all started with the Vision of a kind hearted (no flies on) German man in Stoke Mandiville Hospital.
    I have worked with teaching & providing day services to people with Autism & profound learning Disabilities for 19 years.
    I have had tears in my eyes & Deep emotions in my heart, as Disabled people have shown they shine and are no different than anyone on this planet that thinks & breathes positive & motivated in life.. 🙂 🙂 🙂

  6. Irene Porter

    September 23, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    This sums up perfectly my feelings about this summer. My daughter took part in the opening ceremony of the Olympics and I’m so glad she will have that memory all her life. I went to an athletics session which I enjoyed immensely. As I left I heard someone say how moving it was, and realised I had not even thought about those taking part being disabled while I was watching.

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