Sunday 25 February 2018

Tommy Conlon: Paralympic heroes share frailties with rest of world

GB's Andrew Mullen wins the men's 200m freestyle bronze on day 1. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire
GB's Andrew Mullen wins the men's 200m freestyle bronze on day 1. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire

Tommy Conlon

They say the Paralympics is all about the medals these days but, if it is, one can't help feeling that it is somewhat missing the point.

On the opening day of competition in Rio last Thursday, Channel 4 broadcast an interview with swimmer Andrew Mullen from Glasgow. Now 19, complications at birth meant that both his lower arms were amputated; his left leg is short and not functional; his right leg is his only fully functioning limb.

When he discovered swimming, it changed his life. "I felt like I was equal," he said, "I felt like no one else had an advantage over me." Playing football, "all the boys in our class had a massive advantage over me but whenever I got in the water, I felt like no one could beat me." He was a shy and quiet young lad. "But just through years of swimming, it definitely built my confidence, it's really shaped me as [the] person [I am] today."

And there in a nutshell is the power of sport. It is a transformational force for those who find within it a way to express themselves. At the elite level it exalts the human form; it reminds us constantly that we are the possessors of an amazing biological machine.

In 2001, I reported on the Special Olympics winter games in Alaska. And it was here that the penny dropped: to witness the strivings of the competitors was to understand that sport can exalt the human body in its many broken forms too. It can elevate us from both ends of the spectrum - the perfect specimens and the irretrievably damaged alike. That week in Alaska was a wondrous experience. "Anyone with a learning disability," said one Irish mother of her son, "if they're involved in Special Olympics they're not lonely. It has been so good to him."

And if you are surrounded every day by thousands of disabled people, it becomes normal. The able-bodied are in the minority so the disabled become mainstream; the irregular human form becomes commonplace. After a few days you stop noticing.

This is surely the great societal aspiration of the Paralympics also: to normalise the marginalised, to fold them inextricably into the great river of humanity.

The Games were started in 1948 by pioneering medical staff at Stoke Mandeville hospital in England. A special spinal injuries centre had been established there to care for the many veterans and civilians injured during World War II. A tiny number of wheelchair patients became the first Paralympians. Nowadays the Games cater for people with a wide array of impairments. The original aim was to use sporting activity as a tool in rehabilitation and general recreation. Perhaps inevitably it developed a competitive regime.

It now has an established infrastructure across the world, supported by government funding and ever-expanding media coverage. But it seems the media has been unable to frame the Paralympics in a different way to its conventional sports coverage. It slavishly adheres to the narrative of medals and times and performance stats. The actual disability of a given athlete seems to be glossed over in favour of the usual tales of sporting endeavour. The central fact of the Paralympian's life, the impairment that has dominated their world, is somehow sidelined.

Maybe this is the way it needs to be. That to tell their story differently is to make them different, when the whole point is to see them as we would see ourselves - as normal citizens of society. The Paralympians themselves seem to prefer it this way: to be seen as athletes only, driven by the same competitive instincts as their able-bodied peers. And perhaps too they have come to find the alternative narrative both clichéd and patronising: that theirs is primarily a triumph of the human spirit over adversity and discrimination etc. It is certainly a well-worn platitude.

But speaking as an able-bodied person, and an outsider to the Paralympian culture, I personally am unable to ignore what I see and feel when watching the Games. On the swimming blocks you see people with stumps for arms, or for legs, bare and exposed in all their vulnerability. You see them defying the power of the water with the power of their will - and you cannot but be moved by the sight of such heart and courage. The times, the destiny of the medals, mean nothing to me, even if they mean everything to the competitors.

There is a price to be paid for reducing the Paralympics to the same old binary story of winners and losers. The television companies want their heroes and they want their medals table showing the latest gold, silver or bronze acquisition to the roll of honour. Government funding is increasingly being allocated using the same formula as the Olympics: medals equals money. All of these rising competitive pressures have inevitably led to cheating: performance-enhancing drugs and the rigging of various disability classifications.

The Paralympics is not the Olympics. It is bigger than medals. It has its stars and its superheroes, the ones who are most visibly pushing against preconceived boundaries and limitations. But it is not about denying their physical frailty; rather it is about sharing it with the rest of the world, for everyone to see, in all their humanity and ours.

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