The Paralympics- not equal but very different   Leave a comment

The Paralympics is not the sporting equivalent of the Olympics.  An Olympic champion can claim to be the greatest measured athlete on the planet (of a particular gender in all but equestrian events).  A Paralympian Gold Medallist usually represents the best in a narrow band of a particular disability.  That doesn’t make the Paralympics any less of a celebration of human achievement than the Olympics; in most ways it is a far better representation of all that is good in humanity.

Paralympians are some of the most incredible people you can find.  Often they put in the hours, make all the sacrifices and raise the finances that any able-bodied athlete does.  In the main it is more of a struggle for that disabled athelete to get the support, money and recognition even before you consider the practical restrictions that come with various disabilities.

However I don’t consider Tanni Grey-Thompson to be a better athlete than Kelly Holmes or Mike Kenny better than Becky Adlington.  In the Paralympics there are so more categories in which to compete but most of us are lucky enough not to qualify for those categories.  This doesn’t mean that those disabled individuals are not  superb athletes but I think Baroness Grey-Thompson’s work as an advocate for disabled people is the equal of her 11 gold medals.

The current games include events for mobility disabilities, amputations, blindness, and cerebral palsy.  In many of those disabilities there are several categories to ensure that athletes of similar classification compete together.  For example this means swimming has 14 classes

There are more than double the number of medals available at the Paralympics than at the Olympics.  A much smaller pool of athletes qualify for those events than for most Olympic events; this where it differs from the Olympics.  Part of any legacy of these Games is increasing participation not just among western disabled people but more importantly in developing countries.  Where sophisticated equipment is needed just to survive never mind participate in sports this will be a long haul.

In theory I could compete in all of the male events at the Olympics.  I know I couldn’t really get down to the weight required in the combat sports but generally anyone can aspire to compete.  I do not qualify for any of the events in the Paralympics*.  With the exception of short-sightedness a world away from recognised visual impairment I was born without disability.  My minor accidents over the years have not meant the loss of limbs, eyesight, brain function or mobility.  Whether you agree with this blog or find it patronising I expect you agree I don’t have an intellectual disability.

(In fact the only Paralympic team I might join would be the Spanish intellectual disability Basketball team!)

The Olympics is now about being the best.  Any pretence about just competing has gone.  You cannot longer see scores of outclassed athletes coming home last in races or being battered in boxing bouts.  There will always be some who compete for “political” reasons such as Niger’s Hamadou Djibo Issaka in the rowing or Saudi Arabia judoka Wojdan Shaherkani. However in the main the Olympics is about the best professional sportsmen on the planet.

The Paralympics is more about where the Olympics started- participation for the good of the human spirit.  The origins of disability sport with Ludwig Guttmann at Stoke Mandeville was about competition as part of therapy.  The opponent to beat in that case was in the first instance your own difficulties.  Most of the Paralympian athletes have already won a personal battle just by being in a position to compete.

The Games however are more than a triumph over adversity for those taking part.  They are an incredible advertisement of the capabilities of disabled people.  While we are by no means perfect in this country we do have a building heritage of recognising abilities rather than disabilities.  Now this four-year event is influencing more and more nations to look at those with disabilities in a different light.

In some ways the Games have gone beyond the point of publicising those with disabilities and towards normalising their status.  I am sure we will have drugs cheats at the Paralympics as well as at the Olympics.  In fact the Games for the disabled bring more opportunities for corruption with the various classifications and practices such as “boosting”.  It is clear that disabled athletes work as hard or harder than their able-bodied counterparts, it is also clear at the elite end a few are just as likely to cheat.

There are usually human interest stories behind many athletes.  With disabled athletes everyone has an account of overcoming adversity.  Whether that is Baroness Grey-Thompson with a condition that meant she wouldn’t have survived infanthood a few years ago now sitting in Parliament or  Martine Wright blown up by terrorists the day after the Games were awarded and now a competitor.

The Olympics is the better sporting competition; the Olympians are the superior athletes.  That doesn’t mean the able-bodied competitors work any harder or make more sacrifices.  Disabled athletes start from a different position and their achievements are far greater on a personal level.

I will watch any sport.  If that sport involves me taking sides then all the better.  If you stick a Union Jack or St George’s Cross  on one side then I am hooked.  For me as a spectator the Paralympic events are like the less well known events at the Olympics.  I only watch Judo, Taekwondo, Volleyball or Swimming and the like if there is a British interest.  I guess it will be the same for these Games.  I put the T45 100m in the same category as the 78kg Olympic Judo- great if there is a Brit in with a chance of winning.

I do recognise that the Paralympics is not like the Olympics.  It is the World’s second greatest multi-sport event but it transcends sport.  It will be patronising for me to highlight that the whole event is a triumph of spirit over adversary but that is how I see it rather than the zenith of sporting excellence.  It has to be more than just a competition, it is about ability over disability.

In reality it is closer to Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s dream than the modern Olympics!  “The most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well”

*I am reminded that the goalkeeper in Blind Football is sighted.  As someone who had a couple of seasons in goal in the Sunday League I have to confess I still don’t qualify!


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