For years the Paralympics has played a minor role in the public consciousness. Traditionally it has been seen as a nice idea, but not the “real” Olympics. If London has set a new benchmark for hosting the Olympic Games then it has set the bar at a record height for the Paralympics, not only in its outstanding organization, but also in terms of its TV reporting, press and social media including Twitter.
I have been lucky enough to see a number of events both at the Olympics and the Paralympics, and the Paralympics have gripped me far more. Maybe there is a bit of patriotic bias involved – seeing the fastest paralympian in history win gold in in the 100 metres was exciting – but the fact that he is Irish made it all the better! If only I had done a better job of learning the words of the Irish national anthem as a kid, then I could have really embarrassed my teenage daughters!
But it is the level of attainment, and not the level of disability, that is simply incredible. These are truly elite athletes. Jason Kenny – an Irish runner who won the “T11” 100 metres final is able to compete at the highest level and trains with the second fastest man in the world, but has only 10% vision. The results in running, swimming, jumping or throwing are incredible. In basketball, you quickly focus on the skills and the wheelchair just seems to merge with their bodies.
And then you hear the interviews. These are not people who define themselves by what they cannot do, but by what they can. They aren’t interested in talking about their “back story”, but about what they want to achieve in their chosen sport.
Channel 4’s coverage has been excellent. It has approached the event with the right blend of respect and humour. Its late night comedy show wrapping up the day’s events has been outstanding, including its terrific “Is it OK to…” segment where people can send in every awkward question about disabilities. Its humour has worked on a very simple principle – laughing at people’s disabilities is bad; laughing with them is, of course, good.
So what can we all learn from the Paralympics? Well first, if you are any kind of sports fan – watch it next time. It is truly incredible sport.
In many cases, the athletes did not start out doing the sport that they were competing in. Many tried several different things before they found where their talent best lay. The lesson? Know your strengths, look for ways to use them to best effect, and then put in the hard yards to turn talent into success.
But if you are looking for inspiration, it lies in the determination of these athletes to succeed, irrespective of the barriers. Paralympians face all the challenges that able-bodied athletes face – the hours of training, securing funding etc. But then they do things like swim a 400 metre freestyle race in under 5 minutes – with only one fully functioning limb!
So if you aren’t sure whether you can do something or not, sit down in front of the TV for an hour with a DVD of the Paralympics…and then get on with it.