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Been following the #RioProblems hashtag?  Zika, sewage-polluted seas, serious transport problems, empty stadia, fart-flavour green diving pools…  Well, curb your indifference, folks, because it’s about to get worse.  Last week, as the Olympics were ending, news began to seep out of that many athletes might not receive funding to attend the Paralympics, eliminating up to 40 of the smaller competing nations: ‘Situation ‘precarious’ over travel grant delays’, said the BBC.  What might this mean for the future of Paralympic sport?

Come the weekend, headlines emphasising the scope and scale of the calamity were widespread:

BUMPY START: With the Olympics done, it’s time for the Paralympics—which are looking like a disaster

Rio 2016: Hosts ‘spend money meant for the Paralympics on Olympics’

There should, suggested some, be a transfer of monies in the other direction:

Rio 2016: Paralympics ‘should be helped by International Olympic Committee’

And finally:

For disabled people like me, it’s clear that the Paralympics are nothing more than an afterthought

I thought that four years ago.

I loved the London Games, although I was torn between being pleased that the whole Games, Olympics and Paralympics, was a sellout; and bitterly disappointed that despite bidding for a great many tickets for both Games, we didn’t get to attend any events at all.  I was delighted that my friend’s daughter, newly wheelchair-dependent, got to go to two events, was treated like Royalty and saw the top athletes in her preferred wheelchair sport.  We watched as much of the TV coverage as we could and thoroughly enjoyed it.  But there was a niggle, nevertheless.  I’ve just dug out the piece I wrote back then; and notwithstanding Oscar Pistorius’ descent into homicidal criminality a short five months later, I think it still stands.  Comments welcomed.

The End of the Paralympics?

 6 September 2012 at 21:44

Yayy London 2012!  Yayy the biggest and most-widely-watched Paralympics ever!  Yayy 7/7 Underground bombing survivor and double amputee Martine Wright, competing in the sitting volleyball!  Yayy sexy cyborg runner Oscar Pistorius, fresh from contributing to South Africa’s achievement of a seasonal best in the Olympic men’s 4 x 400m relay final!  Only three more days of this fabulousness, and the London Paralympics will close down.  But the Paralympics won’t be ending… yet.

Commentators have been keen to tell us how wonderful it is that it has taken a mere 64 years for the Paralympic movement to grow from a handful of injured WWII ex-servicemen at Stoke Mandeville spinal hospital, having a wheelchair archery competition on the opening day of the 1948 London Olympics, to today’s 4,294 participants from 164 countries.

Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson placed great emphasis on the fact that Paralympic tickets have sold out just as the Olympic ones did (all too well aware of that, BoJo and Dave me old muckers, as we didn’t manage to lay our mitts on a single one).  Channel 4, which is screening the games, (since the BBC got the Olympics), produced cheeky ads saying, “Thanks for the warm-up” and “Now meet the superhumans”.  The opening ceremony featured Sir Ian McKellen and Stephen Hawking CH CBE FRS FRSA, and, like the Olympics opening ceremony, had themes referencing Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’.

But.

I watched the Paralympic cauldron being lit, and not only was it déjà vu, it was rather cut-price déjà vu at that, since the Paralympics have fewer competing nations, so this cauldron had fewer components than the Olympic one.  The torch used to light it, incidentally, was the same design as the Olympic one – but the silver of a second-place award, instead of gold.  The Paralympic flag originally had five curved ‘agitos’ symbols, in the same bright colours as the Olympic rings, but the International Olympic Committee objected, and the ‘agitos’ have been reduced to three and their hues muted.  Despite Seb Coe’s avowal that “We want (London 2012) to change public attitudes towards disability, celebrate the excellence of Paralympic sport and to enshrine from the very outset that the two Games are an integrated whole in every way”, it is evident that the Paralympics are still seen as the poor relation, the second-rater, the inferior to be patronisingly condescended to.  Sound familiar?  Anybody with experience of what Frankie Miller calls ‘disability world’ will recognise it instantly.

Listen to the Paralympians themselves, being interviewed.  “I’ve been training for years for this moment.” “It’s brilliant having achieved this (medal).  Training is horrible sometimes, so hard, but now it’s all worthwhile”  “We’re not ‘supercrips’, we’re athletes”.

Quite.

At one point during the opening ceremony, the Channel 4 commentator referred enthusiastically to ‘Team GB’.  Then hastily followed up with, “Sorry, I mean ‘Paralympics GB’”.  I don’t shout at the TV very often – honestly – but that had me bellowing.  Paralympians DO NOT go into the arena representing their disability, they go out representing their COUNTRY.  Just like Olympians.  Why the hell shouldn’t Paralympians be entitled to call themselves part of ‘Team GB’?  (Let’s leave to one side the fact that it should be ‘Team UK’ or ‘Team GB and Northern Ireland’…).

The Paralympics made great viewing.  This year’s may have been the biggest, and, for all I know, the best Paralympic Games ever – but I wish it were the last.  I would prefer never to see another.  I want to see the Paralympics and the Olympics fully integrated (and, what’s more, be buggered to any ‘Special Olympics’ ghettoisation).  I realise that it will cause huge logistical problems to accommodate all the athletes simultaneously and provide enough facilities for everyone, but problems are there to be solved, people, have a little ambition!  Of course, it’s too late for Rio, where the preparations are already underway for 2016, but we really ought to see the Usain Boltalike of 2020 foreshadowed or followed by twentytwenty’s Jonnie Peacock-equivalent, the Marianne Vosses and Sarah Storeys of eight years hence competing in different events but the same time-frame.   I want to see Olympic wheelchair fencing and Olympic blind football. 

Long, long before ‘the Paralympics come home to the UK’ for a third time, I want elite sportspeople with disabilities to be off the fringes and getting well stuck in to the middle of things, right beside and in amongst all the other elite athletes, where they belong.  I want the Olympics living up to their declaration that “The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play…. Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise (my emphasis) is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”

So yes, I want the Paralympics not just to end, but to be ended.  Abolished.  Included.  Different is Good, and Difference must be seen as an integral part of all the other Good things.

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