Tuesday 12 November 2019

Kevin Myers: I was wrong -- I admit that the London Games were a complete vindication of the Olympian spirit

Columnists get things wrong. Sometimes a little, and sometimes a lot. And very rarely -- well, one rather hopes -- totally.

And now, donning the sackcloth and ashes, quaffing deeply from the glutinous punishment-spittoon of a tobacco-chewing wino with catarrh, and flogging myself over each shoulder with a cat o' nine tails dipped in salt, I admit that the London Games have been a complete vindication of the Olympian spirit, and a triumph for the Olympic movement, for the organisers, and for London.

But what a gloriously wonderful way for me to have been proved wrong! All my initial jests about some of the great triumphs of past British ineptitude -- the square steering wheel and the fighter that could only fire backwards -- turned out to be entirely misplaced. Yes, the first week consisted of sports no one's ever heard of, involving pre-spoke Victorian bikes, plus a decade or so of swimming. Watching the breast stroke is like watching snooker being played under a tablecloth. But then the athletics began, and it would be a churlish soul indeed that denied the British their Super Saturday, when they bagged three golds in an hour. Not the light-heavyweight lawn-mowing ladies' excuse-me or the millipedes' waltz, but the women's hept-athlon, the men's 5,000 metres, and, most bizarrely, the long jump, won by an Anglo-Saxon redhead, whose prowess owed nothing what-ever to African genes. A Ginger winning gold in a sprint event is rather like a team of she-Saudis coming first in the girls' beach volleyball. And as for Ireland: well, where should we be without women, Travellers and Northerners? Sandwiched between Qatar and Bangladesh, actually -- and so very big questions there.

Now, nothing will persuade me that tennis or cycling have any place in the Olympics, especially so soon after Wimbledon and the Tour de France. But even these meaningless shadow-events gave plain Londoners a vast amount of innocent pleasure -- and where's the harm in that? What was really most impressive were the huge numbers who turned up for the Paralympics, in which 164 nations competed, and which have become fiercely competitive. Which is why, perhaps paradoxically, I welcome the existence of cheating in the Paralympics: proof that the contestants take these Games very very seriously indeed. Some male athletes with spinal paralysis even stick needles into their testes, which they can't feel, but their bodily defences nonetheless register, so triggering performance-enhancing adrenaline into their bodies. I weep as I write these words: men will understand why.

Being actually interested in the disabilities of Paralympic competitors can seem intrusive or ghoulish. I must live with that; for is it not normal to be interested in the back-stories of all athletes? Certainly, I am lost in admiration at Matt Stutzman, the US archer who was born with empty arm sockets, who picks up the arrow with his toes, uses his legs to draw back the bow and his teeth to release the bowstring. He shot 37 10-point scores and, even more remarkably, holds the absolute world record, embracing both abled and disabled, for the farthest accurate shot, of 230 yards. At four months, he was adopted by Leon and Jean, is married to Amber, and has two sons, Cameron and Carter.

The word "admiration" is meaningless when contemplating such a man. I know that disabled people detest being used as a comparison when we able-bodied want to reflect upon our good fortune. But the mountain is nonetheless there: we who are blessed by nature (for the time being, that is; for all able-bodiedness is strictly temporary and contingent) can only gaze in utter awe at the uninhibited gusto and boundless bravery of these athletes, as each clambers up their own personal rockface.

Another wonderful thing about the Paralympics is that they're made possible by both the thousands of trainers, disabled and otherwise, and by all the Leons, Jeans and Ambers who drive the athletes to the running track, the archery butts, the javelin pit: all unknown, unseen, unsung.

And there are also the legions of unpaid specialists, who calculate the complex judging and marking criteria. Just how do you score for horse-riders with cerebral palsy, for whom even staying on board is a triumph, yet who have refined their skills into the most delicate of dressage manoeuvres?

They who belong to this community -- and for once, that grossly overused word really does apply -- daily operate at a far higher moral level of selfless generosity than most of us exhibit in our entire lives -- and do you know what? They probably never think twice about it, as they rise on a midwinter dawn to drive the limbless teenager to the pool because she desperately wants to prove herself. Indeed, it wouldn't enter their heads not to help. The truest goodness is mediated by neither motive nor calculation, but just spontaneously is.

Attend here carefully. I admit I was wrong: both Olympics have been quite magnificent. So, sorry, London, forgive me Britain -- but, please, readers, do not presume hereafter. These apologies come through clenched teeth and a "what are you looking at Jimmy?" glint in a deranged and bloodshot eye. My usual heartless service will be resumed, just as soon as brutally possible.

Irish Independent

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