ONE of the most successful aspects of these Games – so successful it has provoked barely no debate – has been the inclusion of para events in a number of sports. In sports such as athletics, bowls, cycling and swimming, a small yet significant number of races or matches involving disability athletes has gone ahead as simply another part of the programme.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this inclusion has been how quickly it has been accepted. Only a couple of decades ago, nobody less than fully able-bodied would have qualified. Then there were a few demonstration events, staged to showcase what remained a very different side of sport as far as most spectators were concerned, but not recognised as a full part of the Games programme.
That changed four years ago in Delhi, when the silver won in the swimming pool by Sean Fraser, in the S8 freestyle 100 metres, counted on the medals table every bit as much as those won by the likes of Robbie Renwick, Hannah Miley and Michael Jamieson. Four years on, we have more events, and more Scottish medallists, and no-one asks any more if Libby Clegg’s triumph on the track, or Aileen McGlynn’s in the velodrome, or Erraid Davies’ in the swimming pool, contributes to the home team’s total in the medals table. The answer is yes, and there is no debate about whether it should be otherwise.
For those who would question the right of a certain category of athletes to compete on the same stage as others, there is a simple answer: look at the history books. Once, and not even all that long ago, all officially sanctioned sporting events were contested by one very specific category of athletes: men. That was as a result of ignorance and social prejudice, and thankfully, while those vices are far from abolished, we have long since recognised that gender should not be a bar to participation.
Paralympic categories are more specific than gender, of course, but in that respect they are little different from other ways in which sporting contests are divided. For instance, the fact that athletes with amputations compete against one another rather than against the wholly able-bodied is little different from the categorisation of boxers according to weight category.
So para sport is here to stay, and as far as the Commonwealth Games and other multi-sports events are concerned, the only real outstanding question is how to strike a balance between token representation – which we have left behind – and full integration. For practical reasons the latter is not going to happen, and there is a convincing argument that it should not happen.
Competition here lasts for 11 days, over 17 sports. Realistically, it is hard to expand the programme much more while maintaining the manageability of the event. That is the practical argument against total inclusion.
As for why it should not happen, you only have to look at the Paralympics. Their success, particularly in London 2012, has brought disability sport to a new and growing audience. Because they are not sharing the stage with the usual able-bodied stars, the competitors at the Paralympics get more space, above all on television, for their events to be seen and their stories to be told.
And that media attention, particularly through shows such as The Last Leg on Channel 4, does not focus merely on the sport. It provides time for information and discussion about a whole range of disability issues, personal and political.
What’s more, if the Commonwealth Games or similar events were to include more and more para events, the national and international championships of the individual sports could lose some of their appeal. There is a fine line between integration and incorporation, with the latter often meaning that a group of people have been included without being given any real power.
Clearly, Scotland’s medal tally in these Games has benefited from the selection of para events, and events such as Clegg’s have deliberately been included to maximise the chances of home success. But although some of the negotiations on para events have worked hugely in Scotland’s favour, it was not all one-way traffic. For example, the original plan, as far as our own officials were concerned, was to include Stef Reid’s event, the F44 long jump.
Reid, who as a teenager had a leg amputated below the knee after a boating accident, was a fair bet for a medal when it came time for the horse-trading to begin, and in recent months she has gone from strength to strength. At the recent Diamond League meeting at Hampden, she set a world record for her event, and on that form she would have been an odds-on favourite for gold at the Games.
But the pressures of an already-packed programme and the preferences of other nations meant that her event was omitted from the final track-and-field schedule. That meant the loss from the Games of one of the most talented and engaging people in world athletics.
Future hosts will want the same thing – para events in which their athletes excel and will come up with the same problem, opposition to some of those events from other countries, and lack of space in the programme to fit everything in. So choosing the nature and number of para events will remain difficult. But this year at least, the choice has been spot-on, and Glasgow 2014 should be warmly congratulated for that.