- Arts & Literature
- Science & Technology
By Matthew Handley
As EmeliSandeFest 2012 (or the Olympics Closing Ceremony as it was otherwise known) came to its close, a gloomy fug descended over the country. For two glorious weeks everything had seemed that bit nicer and jollier as the world’s greatest athletes were showcased during a phenomenally successful London Games, and the monumental triumphs of British athletes such as Mo Farah, Chris Hoy, and Jessica Ennis relegated all that nasty Syria business to the ‘And finally’ section of the news usually reserved for an old woman who’s found a big egg in a box of Ricicles or something. In the last week, the glumness that followed has been shifted, as the Paralympics near; however it has not resulted in the same sort of breathless, all-encompassing, look-at-the-shiny-shiny excitement that preceded Danny Boyle’s big rave, but a more reserved curiosity, with an undercurrent of trepidation. Britain doesn’t seem quite as able to embrace disabled sport just yet.
The Paralympics have come a long way as a competition since the Stoke Mandeville Games of 1948, (after which our shit mascot is named, and the genesis of the modern event) when just a handful of injured World War II veterans competed; today they’re a major sporting event in their own right. Massive corporate sponsorship, TV coverage and increasing public interest make the London 2012 Paralympics a huge occasion. Moreover, even ignoring the d-word, the games promise to be an immense sporting spectacle. In Oscar Pistorius, the South African amputee sprinter, disability sport has its first global superstar, who will be looking to dominate on the track amongst an immensely strong field (including Britain’s Jonnie Peacock), whilst in Wheelchair Rugby (a.k.a. murder ball) and boccia the extremes of brutal physicality and precise finesse are respectively displayed. Without considering the social function of the Paralympics, the Games are going to be awesome.
But what makes the Paralympics not just entertaining, but important, is their capacity to change the way we think about a section of our society who are marginalised and stereotyped to an unacceptable extent in 21st century Britain; when disabled people are hit disproportionately by spending cuts, still find access to many places in our society near-impossible, and are even spat at in the street, it is clear that something has to change. There are pervasive and pernicious perceptions of disabled people that many simply find it easier not to talk about; that some still view disabled people as scroungers, useless, or just a bit strange, and that even more think of those who lack full physical capacities as victims, are issues that need to be addressed. To produce a forum in which disability issues are pushed to the top of the agenda for a couple of weeks will hopefully force us to engage with these issues directly. Perhaps more importantly though, is the indirect engagement that is produced by watching those who may be typically associated with being figures in the background storming across the finish line in front of a screaming crowd; the replacement of the stereotype of the victim with that of the champion is something that these Paralympics can aid the process of.
However this can only happen when the aforementioned trepidation is stripped away. Too often coverage of disability sport becomes an unholy amalgam of the X Factor and a Primary School sports day, where able-bodied commentators relay to us a heart-wrenching back story then tell us how brave the competitor is just for participating. Such attitudes do a disservice to the athletes themselves and the disabled cause at large. Paralympians are every bit as competitive as Olympians, and their achievements are just as great, if not greater. But we should not patronise and avoid criticism of underperformance, or praise of brilliance; nor should we mindlessly throw around the clichéd labels of ‘inspiration’ and ‘hero’. The struggles to overcome adversity are an immensely important part of the discourse which surrounds the Paralympian narrative; but in a sporting culture that seems intent on mythologising its stars, there is the risk of producing coverage which hones in exclusively on how sorry we should feel for the athlete in question, thus reinforcing the ‘victim’ type.
Hopefully the British media can find a balance between excruciating attempts to ignore the fact that the competitors are disabled and an almost-exclusive focus on the disability; two polar extremes that have been far too prevalent in the coverage of disability sport in the past. When we admire the achievements of our stars equally regardless of their disability status, and are able to shed our British social awkwardness and feel free to ask questions about how a person’s disability affects their life and career the country will be a better place. The Paralympics can help us get there.