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