Thursday, 30 August 2012


Mixed feelings about the Opening Ceremony of the Paralympics.  Apparently, 11m people watched it on TV (as well as 80,000 in a packed stadium).  I assume these viewers are all in Britain (in fact, was it screened in the US at all?).  With almost no exception, the media comments today are favourable, enthusiastically positive in fact.  And I suspect few, if any, of the 11m will not have enjoyed the spectacle.  But I have some misgivings.
I suppose it was comprehensible to everyone watching.  The commentary was quite good this time (the commentary at the Olympics Opening Ceremony was left off at Danny Boyle’s request - probably wisely) and it was needed (for me at least, since I found some of it a little obscure),  although at least one of my Multiply friends will have instantly recognised and been delighted by the paean to libraries. 
I also thought one or two pieces of the music a little inaccessible, but I guess every taste had to be catered for.  On the other hand, the music as the athletes came in (including of course ‘Heroes’!), Birdy performing ‘Bird Gerhl (with David Toole’s dancing making this by far the most delightful part of the evening), and of course Ian Dury’s ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ were all great (dare I say ‘inspired’) touches.
But the overall effect, the lighting in other words (oh, and the fireworks), was just fantastic.  The lighting installation was the most expensive part of the Olympics Opening Ceremony, but certainly gave value for money last night.  The Olympics is all so long ago now, but I think last night’s light show was probably better than that on 27 July.  It was brilliant anyway.
The one thing I found unnecessarily uncomfortable though was the giant representation of the Marc Quinn sculpture, ‘Alison Lapper Pregnant’ which appeared at the end.  We all know this work from the fourth plinth and, now we have got over it, have accepted it as a remarkable icon of life with disability.  But presenting it in the middle of the arena with performers dancing around it, made it look a little like a graven image, an idol surrounded by worshippers in some sort of ceremony.  Maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t feel it added anything to the show.  And many spectators may have misunderstood its purpose here.
But the really difficult part for me was the commentary during the athletes’ arrival.  I thought just the right explanatory contribution was made during the performances, but where no explanation was needed, ie the athletes coming in, maybe no commentary was needed either
Commentators have a very difficult job with processions, particularly those that take several hours, like yesterday’s.  When the Olympians came into the arena a month ago, there were endless pointless, yet amazing facts reeled off about the countries represented, as though we hadn’t heard of them before (maybe we hadn’t, but it’s not hard these days to look them up).  They were mostly factoids rather than helpful information, and were delivered in that condescending ‘and did you know, Huw, this is the only country in the world . . .’ style, as though they actually knew the inane facts themselves and didn’t have in front of them the product of a team of equally inane researchers.  Something of this was evident this time too with particular comments on those countries with large numbers of disabled athletes through wars – factual, but perhaps unnecessarily political and downbeat on this occasion. 
The commentators were also singling out individual athletes of note this time, a really helpful approach to the rather tedious entry procession; it’s always useful at periodic international events to know who are the stars or the domestic stars or even the up and coming stars.  But I’m not sure we needed (and probably the athlete concerned would have been happy if they’d been omitted) the story of the athlete’s disability too.  I’m not shirking from knowing or pretending that the disability doesn’t exist, but we do know these athletes are disabled.  Maybe a better approach, than going emotionally through the difficulties they have faced in competing (in living even), would just be to describe in awe their prowess on the track or in the pool.  Again, maybe it’s just me, but I felt the miserable commentary didn’t quite square with the athletes’ jubilant entry into the stadium.
This is a problem though.  I have watched the first day of the Games today and marvelled at the skill of the Chinese swimmer without arms who won the gold, despite racing against swimmers with arms; and at the blind judo practitioners; and I cheered out loud at the men swimmers and the women cyclists.  But apart from initially noting the obvious disability, the competition quickly became the key focus of my attention.  There was a moment, seeing certain athletes, when I wondered what disabilities had made them eligible for the Paralympics, because none were obvious.  So clearly some sort of explanation can be needed.  But, here, the classification standard at the start of each event is the most important information.  And maybe that’s all we need.  But commentators probably have a fact sheet in front of them about each athlete and it must be tempting to read out the especially poignant stories.
I see there has already been a request for commentators to cut down on the number of ‘brave’s and ‘inspirational’s they use.  This is the same point really.  I enjoyed the events I have watched so far, but not once did I feel, nor want to feel, sorry for the athletes.  There is a danger, as I hinted in my last post on the subject, that we see them as disabled persons trying to overcome their disabilities, rather than as performers.  And I didn’t feel that at all today.  If I want to know how anyone became disabled for any reason, I’ll Google them.  Of course, in competing, they may not be brave exactly (although I guess they were when they had to begin to overcome their disability), but they are certainly inspirational.  Lord Coe said, "Prepare to be inspired, prepare to be dazzled, prepare to be moved."  I guess he had to say that, and it’s a good speech line, but ‘dazzled’ was perhaps enough.
Anyway, there we are – we’re off!  And we have won some medals already!!  I’m dazzled.

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