Friday, September 9, 2011

Not a sideshow - Paralympics bring awareness of disability into the public mind in a most enthralling way

From The Guardian Sport Blog:

One thing is for certain: the 2012 Paralympic Games will be no sideshow, trundling apologetically in the wake of the main event. Since disabled athletes first gathered in competition more than half a century ago the rest of the world has come to recognise their value, sporting as well as social.

For enthralling competition and human drama the athletes in the 20 Paralympic disciplines now yield to no one. To see the wheelchair racers charging into the first turn, for example, is every bit as nerve-jangling as watching the Gold Cup field galloping down Cleve Hill at Cheltenham or two dozen grand prix cars fighting for space through Spa's Eau Rouge.

Public attitudes to disability have been revolutionised since athletes in wheelchairs competed together for the first time in the grounds of a Buckingham hospital in 1948. Post-war schoolboys may have grown up revering Douglas Bader, the legless fighter pilot, and Archie Scott Brown, an intrepid racing driver despite being born with severe deformities. More recently, however, Stephen Hawking, the cosmologist with amytrophic lateral sclerosis, Evelyn Glennie, the profoundly deaf classical percussionist, David Blunkett, the blind former cabinet minister, Robert Wyatt, the wheelchair-bound rock musician, and Heather Mills, the amputee who married Paul McCartney, have taken their place in a wider public arena.

When a car crash robbed Sir Frank Williams, the Formula One team owner, of the use of his arms and legs 25 years ago, his misfortune prompted his old rival Ron Dennis to remark ruefully - and accurately - that the accident would make him an even more dangerous competitor, since now he could devote all his time to thinking.

In the cinema, contributions to great understanding were made by Pedro Almodóvar's Live Flesh, featuring Javier Bardem as a paraplegic former policeman competing in the wheelchair basketball competition at the 1992 Olympics, and Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, seemingly rendered helpless by locked-in syndrome but dictating a book with the movement of his eyelashes.

The Paralympic Games, however, bring an awareness of disability into the public mind in a particularly concentrated and enthralling form. The athletes have their own motto - "spirit in motion" - but it has long since been clear that they have a right to a full share in the exhortation bestowed on all athletes at the modern Olympics by Baron Pierre de Coubertin: faster, higher, stronger. And now they are coming home.

Ludwig Guttmann, a German doctor who settled in Britain, was their progenitor. Born in Silesia in 1900, he studied neurology and was the director of the Jewish hospital in Breslau before fleeing the Nazis in 1939. During the war he founded the pioneering national centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital and in 1948 he acted on a belief that sport could play a major role in rehabilitation by organising the first Wheelchair Games for British servicemen with spinal injuries.

The next event was held in 1952, with Dutch servicemen joining in to make it international. The idea caught on quickly and the first open Paralympic Games were held in Rome in 1960, attracting 400 wheelchair athletes from 23 countries. By 1976 in Toronto the numbers had swollen to 1,600 from 40 nations and 12 years later in Seoul the Paralympics were held for the first time immediately after the main Games and using the same facilities.

A governing body for disabled athletes was set up in 1964, reorganised in 1989 as the International Paralympic Committee, separate from but working in close co-operation with the International Olympic Committee. Since then it has made enormous progress in advancing the recognition of six categories of athletes: amputees, those with cerebral palsy, those with intellectual disabilities, those using wheelchairs, those with impaired sight and the category officially known as les autres - the others, including those with multiple sclerosis and congenital deformities.

Complicated adjustments are made for degrees of disability in some sports - although in goalball, played by athletes with impaired vision, equality is ensured through the wearing of black masks by all the competitors.

Trischa Zorn, a blind American swimmer, holds the record for the number of Paralympic medals: 55 in all, 41 of them gold, won between 1980 and 2004.

The swimmer Mike Kenny holds Britain's record of 16 gold medals, while Tanni Grey-Thompson is perhaps this country's most recognisable Paralympian. She propelled her wheelchair to 11 golds, four silvers and a bronze over distances between 100m and 800m in five Games between 1988 and 2004 and was made a dame for her work on behalf of disabled athletes.

Among the current heroes are Oscar Pistorius, whose success with his carbon-fibre legs on the running track has led him to compete with able-bodied athletes, and Ellie Simmonds, whose achondroplasia did not prevent her from travelling to the Beijing aquatic centre in 2008 as the youngest member of Britain's Olympic and Paralympic squads and, at 13 years of age, winning two gold medals in the 100m and 400m freestyle.

These are the children of Ludwig Guttmann, the refugee who believed in the practical benefits of sport and was knighted for his work in his adopted land. A journey that began in Stoke Mandeville 63 years ago has taken his initiative around the world, only to end up, between 29 August and 9 September next year, in London's Olympic Park: a distance of no more than 33 miles but measureless in its contribution to a more enlightened world.