Michael Kelly: Don’t patronise parathletes with elitist talk
TO GAIN success at the Paralympics calls for dedication and hard work, but exaggerated descriptions of their abilities only helps to demean their achievements, writes Michael Kelly
Is Paralympic sport really elite? Certainly, it is not my ideal of televised entertainment. Clearly, I am in the minority as tickets have been sold out and Channel Four is so delighted with its viewing figures that regular scheduling has been abandoned to allow even more coverage from the Olympic Park.
But the number of medals won by individual parathletes undermines the very definition of “elite”. Dame Tanni Grey Thomson’s record total of 11 gold medals was very nearly surpassed this year by Lee Pearson OBE in dressage. He had won nine golds from his first nine attempts, secured another this year and goes on to Rio hoping for his 11th. Grey Thomson has won 16 medals of all colours from 21 attempts. There is a husband and wife who have won 21 medals between them. Sir Steve Redgrave, the Olympic rower who won five golds at five consecutive Games and who is regarded as Britain’s greatest couldn’t look at that.
Paralympic athletes change sports with an ease unknown in able-bodied sport. Successful swimmers can become champion cyclists. Wheelchair competitor David Weir has already won the 5,000m and 1,500m this year and hopes to do the same in the 800m final today and in Sunday’s marathon. Lord Coe, when he was plain Sebastian Coe, could not have done that. And Mo Farah wouldn’t even consider the challenge.
Whatever else, this demonstrates a lack of competition at the top. Is this because the Games are too young to attract more than the same old lot four years after four years? Or is it that only a very special few can overcome the huge disadvantages associated with disability so that the role model effect can never filter down? The answer has important policy implications. It was refreshing to hear Grey Thomson argue that these are athletes we are dealing with not politicians. She pointed that they were not competing to change social attitudes but to win medals – which is just as it should be. But as society does want to change public perceptions the impact of these widely promoted and subsidised Games should affect the amount of government funding. Whatever their own objectives, the sight of their performances must be a comfort and inspiration to those equally affected. But does it translate into better attendance at gyms and sports clubs?
The bad sportsmanship exhibited at these Games was taken by some apologists as a sign that the Paralympics had come of age. Jody Cundy’s petulant protest at being rightly disqualified and Oscar Pistorious’s complaint that the man who beat him, Alan Oliveira, was wearing longer blades were contrary to all Olympic ideals. Such gamesmanship has taken some of the rosy tint from the way the Games are being viewed across all media.
There are problems of classification which make disabled sport impossible to assess properly. In able-bodied sports there are no exceptions at the top level. Those who win are the best. When assessing parathletes it is almost impossible to get it right, though organisers seem to have done as fair a job as possible.
But classification does lead to a bewildering number of classes for the same event. It seemed that the major reason why Ellie Simmonds won the 200m medley relay was that her disability allowed her to swim the freestyle leg using the front crawl whereas many of her fellow finalists, who were leading going into the last 50m, were only able to manage the breast stroke. “Elite” cannot be used in that context. If the wheelchair events were open to all, disabled and abled alike, then they would have a claim to being world class. Able-bodied athletes can already win medals in athletics and cycling, Goalkeepers in the blind five-a-sides are allowed to be sighted.
If comparing physically disabled athletes is difficult, then the re-admission of athletes with intellectual disabilities surely poses an impossible task. There simply cannot be any comparison. Yet strict assessment is essential following the discovery that ten of the 12 Spaniards who won the 2000 basketball title were kidding on they had learning difficulties. That must be the lowest form of cheating ever. What kind of person would, even for a moment, want the world to think that they were intellectually disabled?
Some might ask whether designating the Games as “elite” matters. After all, many of us plough our way around the golf course struggling to break a hundred and still have fun. But TV doesn’t broadcast monthly golf club medals at peak times. On the other hand, we also watch football and rugby that is far from elevated. Why, the Gaels have even developed an enhanced appetite for Third Division football. One can enjoy supporting one’s local team and be equally passionate about it as being enraptured by Barcelona.
No doubt sport is uplifting for competitors. It is also magnificent to see how human nature can overcome the cruellest of blows. No-one watching can fail to admire the determination and commitment involved. That appreciation is mixed with a relief that such accidents have not befallen oneself or one’s children,
The Paralympics should return to the roots of a movement which began with the sole objective of helping rehabilitate wounded soldiers.
For me, the real message from seeing the amputees returning first from Iraq and now Afghanistan is the futility and human cost of war. But the human race wants to ignore that lesson. These brave people are now referred to as “injured” not “wounded” suggesting some sort of accident. The fact is that the number of casualties is part of the calculation of any military operation.
Paralympic sport provides a challenge, a pleasure, a satisfaction to participants none of which need dressing up. Describing the Olympics as the warm up act for these Games may have been smart marketing. But it was demeaning. To achieve any level of Paralympic performance requires almost superhuman effort. It is patronising to describe the performances as elite when that doesn’t stand up to analysis. It is the competitors, winner and losers, who are elite.
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