Let’s be honest about the Paralympics
It’s not the Olympics, but the Paralympics has some amazing sport – if only people could stop patronising the athletes.
I’ve got a confession to make. I had little interest in the Paralympics before they started. I simply refused to buy the hype that these games were a sequel to the Olympics. I’d feared a carnival of worthiness rather than a feast of high-quality sport. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality of some of the sport. Not all of it. Some events still feel more village fete than elite competition. If Paralympic sports are to achieve ‘parity of esteem’ with able-bodied sports, we need a more honest discussion about their flaws, as well as celebrating the sporting achievements.
Many TV viewers have complained about Channel 4’s ad breaks, but they aren’t half as annoying as the patronising ‘they’re all heroes’ narrative, which is never far from the surface. As David Bowie’s iconic song is repeated interminably, you can’t help wondering whether the athletes are seen as heroic for their sporting achievements or simply for overcoming terrible adversity. It was inevitable that the Paralympics would be used as an instrument for attempting to re-engineer public attitudes to disability, but how do these games rate from a purely sporting perspective? To be honest, the Paralympics is still a mixed bag. Some events are uncompetitive and frankly a bit crap, while impairment classification makes other events simply confusing. But every now and then we’ve see feats of skill, strength, agility, endurance or speed every bit as awe-inspiring and thrilling as non-disabled sports.
Let’s start with what’s been good. I’ve particularly enjoyed the wheelchair events because they have evolved so far from their able-bodied antecedents as to be different sports altogether. Wheelchair racing is a trial of bicep power rather than legwork. David Weir’s victory in the wheelchair 5K was a triumph of tactical nous, endurance and explosive finishing speed. Weir has been described as ‘Mo Farah on wheels’ but that doesn’t do justice to his incredible upper body strength which sets him apart from distance runners. Likewise, wheelchair basketball has been an eye-opener to me. As with track events, there are similarities with the able-bodied sport. The ball handling and some of the tactics are the same, but the need to manoeuvre the wheelchairs around the court requires a different type of agility. And, of course, wheelchair ballers don’t jump, so they are more reliant on the accuracy of their shooting.
The blade runners - amputees running on state-of-the-art carbon fibre prosthetics – have also been fantastic to watch. But the controversy sparked by Oscar Pistorius’ angry reaction to his defeat in the 200m sprint illustrates one of the more intractable problems facing the Paralympics. Given the wide spectrum of functional impairments, it is inherently difficult to create a level playing field. Advances in technology mean that, for example, prosthetic blades don’t correct impairments in the way that spectacles correct short-sightedness. They can actually give athletes a competitive advantage - ‘technological doping’ as some describe it. Pistorius’s complaint that Alan Oliveira’s longer running blades gave him an unfair advantage is legitimate. Watching the Brazilian’s remarkable finish, it was genuinely difficult to tell whether this was an athletic achievement or a technological one. British 400m runner Martyn Rooney tweeted that Oliveira looked like he was ‘on stilts’. Ironically, however, Pistorius’s complaint about his competitor’s technological advantage applies equally to his own participation in the Olympics. We’ve now reached the point where running blades could actually give amputees an advantage over able-bodied athletes.
Classification is another thorny question. Some runners or swimmers clearly have an advantage over more severely impaired rivals. Often there are too few competitors in an impairment group to ensure genuine competition so athletes with different capabilities are lumped together in the same event. As Laura Williamson puts it in a refreshingly honest Daily Mail column: ‘There have been too many events with low-quality small fields, or lots of different categories of athletes bunched together for logistical purposes, conjuring up images of having a go at a school sports day’. It’s the elephant in the room which few commentators have been brave enough to point out, such is the stifling ‘You Can’t Say That!’ climate which surrounds the Games.
In some disciplines a weighted scoring system is used to try to level the playing field. This leads to rather perverse situations such as the women’s long jump where Britain’s Stef Reid jumped further than her nearest rival, twice breaking the Paralympic record, only to finish with silver. This was because below-the-knee amputees, such as Reid, had been grouped together with more severely impaired above-the-knee amputees and a points system was in operation. I can sympathise with the organisers’ attempts to even things up, but it’s hardly citius, altius, fortius.
Some might argue that the Paralympics embody De Coubertin’s ideals much better than the Olympics, which have been tainted by doping scandals and win-at-all costs professionalism. But you only have to listen to Oscar Pistorius’s bitter reaction to his 200m final defeat or Jody Cundy’s expletive-filled tantrum after disaqualification in the cycling time trial to see that winning matters rather a lot to these guys. They’re not just ‘there for the sing-song’, as Roy Keane might say. Unfortunately, some of Channel 4’s coverage reinforces the patronising view that the Paralympians should be applauded just for taking part. When GB judoka Sam Ingram said, in an emotional interview after defeat in his gold medal bout, that he was ‘gutted’, presenter Ade Adepitan said he ‘should be happy’ with silver.
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If the Paralympics is to be treated as serious sport rather than a glorified form of rehabilitation, we need to stop saying ‘bless, didn’t he do well?’ and discuss failure and underperformance in a more brutally honest way.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.
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