|"In the Olympic Park, beneath the venues"|
Each day of my life, a small bag of stones lie attached to my side. Each stone is created by a self created misconception, and their weight often holds me down. Most of them exist through personal ignorance and a lack of experience. But - even though they do, I cannot shed any of them, without solid proof which lets me know they are built on delusion; I am a man, and logic is our trusted friend... sometimes.
While aware of its existence as a post-Olympic competition for the handicapped, I was never someone who took much interest in the Paralympic games. I always saw it as an event designed as a passive form of patronisation; in order to hand the disabled a feeling they were important - even though, they really weren’t.
I saw it in a kind of “Aww, look at that dwarf swimming – isn’t she brave”. Or “It must be nice to feel like a proper athlete, running without legs and all”. In essence, it was a competition for enforcing rehabilitation, as opposed to breaking social barriers; the sporting equivalent of employing a Down syndrome sufferer as guard of a 'secret' room – which he never figures out is actually empty. Yes, my ignorance to the second largest sporting event on planet Earth, was appalling.
The media coverage didn’t help. Beijing 2008’s hour of nightly highlights on the BBC, was hardly a fair reflection of a twenty-one event competition where over five hundred Gold medals were won. Not to mention their overly insulting nature of referring to the athletes as ‘special’, and maintaining a predictable try-hard mantra of ‘they are people too, let's not forget that’. Overall, my impression of a Paralympian was general and small-minded; someone who probably lost their legs or arms in an accident, found a sport to give their life meaning, and then wins a Gold medal - as hardly anyone else took part in their event.
With the games heading to London, my misconceptions had developed added dust of assumption. I believed they would arrive and leave my hometown with minimal fanfare, a few British medals would be won her and there, and the odd curious soul may even turn up to patronise an event of two. But all in all, no one would really give a shit. The Olympic hangover would be too strong; making the disabled bodied competitors seem like a massive, disadvantaged let down. I wanted to be wrong, but never ever thought I would be. Thankfully, I was wrong. Never in my wildest dreams, did I know how wrong I would be, and almost joyous for the fact I was.
From the nature of the very first day of competition, through the countless, endless stories of human triumph over adversity; bordering on the sublime, to the ridiculous. And the manners in which they found means to take part (the armless silver medallist archer, replacing his arm with a foot, my personal favourite), I was finding myself constantly readdressing my perceptions of the games, it’s competitions, the national and global response, and – more than anything else, those who were attempting to leave with a medal wrung proud around their necks… the athletes. My mind had limits, their minds, obviously, didn’t even recognize the word’s existence.
These were not pathetic cripples to pander to. These were super-strong, dedicated machines. By the time I saw double stick legged amputee Richard Whitehead storm through his competition to win T42 200m Gold; looking like some kind of demented, ambitious cyborg, I was lost in an awe which left me genuinely speechless. Over the next week, as 17-year-old dwarf swimmer Ellie Simmons, knocked out a trifecta of medals, Alex Zanardi won Double Gold in hand-cycling; ten years after losing both legs in a truly horrific motor racing smash. The successes of Team GB’s ‘Superhumans’; a marketing term I laughed at only two weeks ago as being ridiculous – which it was, the term was an understatement. One legged high-jumpers, blind long jumpers, wheelchair Rugby, Basketball, and Fencers. Limbless volleyball players, armless swimmers… the list went on and on and on; every last one a winner, every last one humble. Eventually – like most of those who either had no idea what to expect – or wasn’t expecting anything of note, we came to expect the unexpected; fundamentally grateful, each time we did. As an event coined to ‘inspire a generation’, it failed… instead, it inspired every generation currently living; which doesn't happen very often, if ever.
I was fortunate enough to see the Olympic Park, the athletics at Olympic stadium, and a mixture of events as the Excel arena. Each time I felt the same glow of positivity, warm energy, and general celebration of life and achievement – only sport and music seem able to achieve. In any other walk of life, seeing two French Paralympic wheelchair athletes puffing on a crafty fag, would probably cause me to assume they don’t have many other joys in life. With the weight of my misconception stones now firmly behind me, I merely thought to myself ‘cheeky bastards. You won’t win any medals doing that!’ This trend continued throughout, and after a while of walking around all forms of mental and physical ‘disability’, instead of feeling bad for them, or fortunate for myself, I was no longer aware of the differences; because, deep down, there weren’t any – limb count is irrelevant. The only real difference I could think of, was how every last athlete would piss on me, if I tried taking them on at their chosen event.
The games have ended now, and life goes on. Rio will try to emulate London, America will continue to ignore the games, and heart will continue to triumph over adversity. For me, I now see the Paralympians in a similar vein to the Olympians. However, there is one difference; a Paralympian is proof, that whatever suffering you have experienced in life, as long as you are breathing, victory is both possible, and – with enough dedication, determination, and sheer will, absolutely probable. Goodbye Paralympics; you have inspired a nation, a world, and an entire species. You have served as an iron-clad reminder, that the human spirit surpasses every ounce of suffering the nature of life can ever throw at us. You have shown us that life will never be built around what we lose, as much as what we were born with, and never forget we have.
The disability was my stone of misconception; it has gone now. I will never again use the word 'impossible', in any sentence - only when I denounce it...