Saturday, 8 September 2012


I started writing something last night about the Paralympics.  But I felt tired and went to bed before I'd finished.  The outcome is that today's newspapers have said most of what I wanted to say.  But of course I'll say it anyway; it deserves to be said.

I said earlier that I had changed my mind about the Paralympics and that, far from feeling uncomfortable watching blind football or the 200m for those with cerebral palsy or swimming for those with missing limbs, I am both stunned and captivated.

One often finds oneself listening to disabled persons speak animatedly of their pastimes or intellectual pursuits, or examining handicrafts displayed at a home for those with various disabilities, and one's enthusiasm is unavoidably tempered with a touch of pity or sorrow.  I think I had originally thought of the Paralympics in that way too.  Simon Barnes in The Times got it right when he said that many of us had felt previously that we should watch the Paralympics out of a sense of compassion or duty or support for some liberal social ideal.  But Lord Coe couldn't have been more right when he said at the Opening Ceremony that we should be prepared to be amazed.  And I am amazed that I, and everyone else for that matter, should be so happy.

So I watched Sarah Storey cycle home in the road race, after cycling 64km, a distance way beyond my fit capabilities, and she slowed down to pick up a Union Flag, flying it behind her as she crossed the finishing line and finishing over 7mins ahead of her nearest rival.  Sarah now has 5 golds for swimming and 6 for cycling, plus 7 silvers and three bronzes.  I have no hope of even qualifying for these events (not because I have all my limbs I don't mean, but because I could never equal, nor never have equalled, her achievement).  I watched Jonnie Peacock run the 100m in 10.9 secs with one leg and Richard Whitehead in the 200m with no legs . . . wow!  Just watch this.  You'll probably need to watch it twice.

Did you see that he was in last place at the 100m mark?  Watch it again.  Could I run as fast in my youth as either of these guys?  I doubt it.  Disabled?  Only superficially anyway.  And could I feel sorry for them?  Just look at how fired up and happy they were.  Of course I couldn't feel sorrow in the face of their achievements.  Envious a little maybe.  Who'd have thought that, that I might envy a man with one or both legs missing?

And there are so many other athletes I would wish to mention -  Hannah Cockcroft, who won the wheelchair 200m 2 secs ahead of anyone else; Jessica Long, the US swimmer, who won her first gold in 2004 and now has 12 golds, 3 silvers and a bronze; Ellie Simmonds, winning 2 gold medals at Beijing, aged just 13, and going for her 3rd gold today, after breaking 2 world records already; Danielle Brown and Sophie Christiansen, winning golds despite extraordinary handicaps, yet somehow transforming into totally different people when engaged in their sports; the Iranian men’s Sitting Volleyball team, odds-on favourite for the gold, doing so well because, poignantly, there are so many polio victims to choose from for the team; Esther Vergeer, the Dutch wheelchair tennis player, who hasn't lost a game I think for 7 years (at least she has only lost one in 11 years).  I think I'm in love with Esther BTW; who'd have thought that?  Certainly not Natasha Kaplinsky or Julia Bradbury (who don't know about each other incidentally, so don't say anything).

So, yes, suddenly disability is not a handicap.  But, more importantly, we don't now see it as a handicap.  I was struck by the wheelchair-bound lady interviewed on the radio the other day (I can't remember the context), who said that, when she visited the Olympic Park, no one ignored her, as they usually do, and many people came to talk to her because they thought she might be a Paralympian.  And, in today's Times, Melanie Reid, the famous paralyzed horserider, said that she hadn't wanted to go to the Paralympics because she was embarrassed at what the Paralympic equestrian team could achieve, but found herself surprised at how cool it now seemed to be to be disabled.  She also recounted amusingly the story of her in her wheelchair encountering a lady with a pushchair in a narrow space and finding she had to move out of the way.  No concessions then now to so-called disabled; they might be more able than we used to think.

And this is perhaps the legacy of these extraordinary Games - we now have a completely different view of disability.  I don't know whether it will remain cool to be disabled; I don't know that you will hear many people say (as we have heard many say at the Paralympics) that, if they could start again, they wouldn't want their legs back; nor do I know whether we will revert to ignoring or feeling sorry for those in wheelchairs, but I do know that there has been a step change.  And nowhere is it more apparent than in those countries which previously looked askance at those with disabilities.  It is notable for example how well the Chinese and Russian athletes have done this time (and note Jessica Long and Elisabeth Stone's stories).  I suspect that in Rio the Paralympics will be an even bigger event.

I am feeling particularly proud of myself today.  I have just been to the gym and had my performance measured.  Since I left hospital 6 months ago, I have put back a stone in weight, but, since starting the gym 6 weeks ago, I have remarkably lost an inch and a half round my waist at the same time.  So I won't now need to have a limb amputated to improve either my weight or my performance (or my street cred?).

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