Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The Paralympic legacy

There’s been lots of talk and print about the 2012 “legacy” – from the problems of picking a sports’ personality of 2012 and what would happen to the Olympic park in East London to the lessons for the economy and the implications for the Prime Minister’s position.  He bizarrely, I noticed, used the success of both Games as an argument against Scottish independence (“you showed us what we really are – one United Kingdom, one flag, one celebration…”).  However that’s not the real legacy issue.  It’s not even whether the tubes will run on time; it’s not whether there’ll be a baby-boom in nine months’ time, or whether children will keep asking their parents to organise their own Olympic Games. 

For me it’s much more profound and systemic than those things.

We applied for both Olympic and Paralympic events.  As it turned out, I am very glad I didn’t get tickets for the Olympics, but “only” for the Paralympics.  Being disabled myself I thought it would be interesting.  In fact it was intensely moving.  We went to Eton Dorney to see the rowing heats, and the following day we made it to Greenwich to watch the Equestrian event.  After that I recorded the television coverage so that I could fast forward through all those annoying and too frequent adverts interrupting well-informed analysis from a number of unfamiliar commentators.  Meantime I reflected on what might be the much touted legacy of the Games, besides medals, golden post-boxes and postage stamps, and a couple of smart sports venues. 

Since we are such a media-controlled society, let’s start there.  It was striking how much demand there was for every venue, and how blanket coverage of every event could be sustained.  Even women’s football which started slowly had gained momentum and full stadiums by the end, proving it is an exciting competitive spectacle.  And then there were a myriad of rarely seen events, from archery to weight-lifting, athletics to swimming, cycling to team sports, both able-bodied and disabled.  To pick out any would be invidious, but who could forget the thrill of BMX racing or the dodgem-like aggression of wheelchair rugby?  Or fail to be excited by stars like Sarah Storey and David Weir?  There was an astonishing variety of events and stars who captured the public imagination.  What an opportunity – for reasonably priced television programming, which of course is a two-way street, providing accessible entertainment and generating further interest in the sports.  Why need it wait for the infrequent mega-events?  And while I’m on the subject, how refreshing it was to have fresh faces on our screens unpretentiously commenting on events they understood from the inside!

There’s a danger, it seems to me, of investing in élitism at the expense of “the rest”.  Many of the medal winners would include Lottery funding in their thanks.  It clearly contributed to their success, but lest politicians congratulate themselves that this success proves how well we provide for the disabled in general they should consider what happens to the disabled who aren’t elite athletes.  They should know that the disabled community lives in fear of their fate when their Disability Living Allowance is soon replaced with the new Personal Independence Payment, and when their benefits are reassessed.  They should know that the disabled who are not out achieving remarkable things in sports arenas are not therefore lay-abouts and scroungers.  Nevertheless it is to be hoped that the high-achievers will have dispelled the myth once and for all that disability renders you less of a person, with less dignity and worthy of less respect. 

This recognition has implications for both ends of life.  Isn’t it time to reassess our attitude to foetuses who have some disability or neurological condition?  At the moment we presume that termination is the desirable option.  Now we know beyond doubt that in abortion we are ending a life of unforeseen potential.  And, at the other end, we should also know that broken bodies of any age are not merely fit for the scrapheap; they have the same spark of humanity as the most perfect specimens.  They are worth fighting for because even the least has value.
© The Guardian
 Another legacy I trust will remain from the Paralympics is the spirit of sport, by which I mean the respect and empathy towards each other shown by the competitors.  Anyone who saw it will long remember Ellie Simmonds embracing her victorious American “rival”, Victoria Arlen, across the lane ropes after she’d come second in the 100m freestyle.  Conversely one couldn’t fail to be moved by Jochen Wollmert’s immediate comforting of the defeated and distraught Will Bayley after their table tennis final, in remarkable spontaneous sympathy.  Spontaneity and honesty was also a mark of the athletes’ interviews, whether “gutted” with disappointment or elated by achievement.  We could do with more of that – not only in sports but also in other areas of public life:  less ear-tickling, more heart-felt saying it as it is.  Less political calculation, more paralympian honesty.  The Paralympics could leave us a better society.  Will we accept their legacy, or leave it unclaimed?


  1. A very interesting reflection, with some critical questions. I think the ability to build on the success depends on all of us taking some responsibility, but I wonder if we are ready for that.

  2. Hmm, I wonder too.
    I've just found your blog - which is great. Thank you.

  3. I found it very moving too. Watching a whole stadium full of people cheering a disabled person brought it home to me how disrespected I sometimes feel. It was both sad to realise that I still feel that way, and encouraging to see that a different world is possible.

    1. Let's keep reminding people of that different world - which, by the way, I think is a part of the Kingdom of God, where there is neither ... nor ..., neither able nor disabled but all are one in Jesus.

  4. Hello Michael, our son Stuart volunteered and was at first a little jealous of his cousin who had been allocated to driving the around in B.M.W. cars. After a rather strenuous week he realised that his role as one who pushed wheelchairs was far more rewarding. He was directly in touch with what it was all about, meeting disabled people and seeing at first hand the difficulties some were determined to overcome. A one-off event (his words, not mine) that he will always remember. Although he has had first hand experience in the past of helping me get back on my feet it certainly broadened his outlook.

    Epilepsy, like mental illness is one of those marginal areas for some of us live a "fairly normal" life most of the time. Whatever that might be!