Friday 27 April 2018

'They're sportspeople who happen to be disabled, not disabled people who happen to do sport'


Marieke Vervoort of Belgium celebrates with her bronze medal during the victory ceremony. Photo: Jason Cairnduff/Reuters
Marieke Vervoort of Belgium celebrates with her bronze medal during the victory ceremony. Photo: Jason Cairnduff/Reuters

Cathal Dennehy

Confession: I had little interest in the Paralympics. Maybe it was the timing, arriving so soon after that massive orgy of sport weeks before; maybe it was my own ignorance, that I just don't know, just can't connect, with the baffling lunacy of these sports; or maybe - and probably closest to the truth - I just didn't think it mattered.

Prediction: neither did you.

And maybe that's unfair; maybe you didn't need to understand to see its value. Maybe you listened to those who told you what to think and feel: to be inspired by their bravery.

In Ireland, we were told this was 'more than sport'. In Britain, they were force-fed like French geese the idea that Paralympians were 'superhumans'.

Think about that. Think about what it would be like to work your ass off to win a medal for your country, not wanting pity or sympathy for your disability, and wanting to just be called what you are: a sportsperson, a human.

Because this was just sport - no more, no less - and these athletes were human; some weak, some strong, some cheating, some honest, every bit as frail, flawed and fascinating as the rest of us.

But there's a term for what so often occurred, coined in 2012 by the late Australian journalist, comedian and disability rights activist Stella Young. Inspiration porn. It describes that chronic, caustic practice of describing disabled people as inspirational on the basis - you guessed it - of their disability.

"My everyday life, in which I do exactly the same things as everyone else should not inspire people," wrote Young, "and yet I am constantly congratulated by strangers for simply existing."

In Rio, we saw it repeatedly, and each time it undermined the credibility of this as a sporting event.

An example: on Thursday evening, China's Huang Wenpan hacked seven seconds off the world record in the S3 200m freestyle final, a category for swimmers who do not have use of their legs. It was a thrilling finale, a quality contest, as he edged Ukraine's Dmytro Vynohradets 3:09.04 to 3:09.77.

But who did the crowd go wild for? Not Wenpan, but Sweden's Mikael Fredriksson, who struggled his way home 68 seconds behind, his time, it's fair to say, a poor 4:17.70.

So why was he the hero? Why not the accomplished one? When Brazil got thrashed 7-1 by Germany in the World Cup semi-final, they were booed off the pitch by their supporters. If this is high-performance sport, we need to stop treating it like charity.

Because in many areas, it truly was jaw-to-the-floor stuff. Just take Cuba's Omara Durand, a visually-impaired sprinter who won triple gold in the T12 category. Her times - 11.40 for 100m, 23.05 for 200m and 51.77 for 400m - would have obliterated the fields at our own national championships, and she ran them with one hand tethered to her guide.

And there was so much more, so many displays of genuine sporting class, regardless of disability, that didn't necessitate the stoop towards sympathy or cheerleading, even if some stories were so heart-breaking it came easy.

Take Belgian wheelchair racer Marieke Vervoort, who won a silver medal in what will be her last Games. The 37-year-old has a degenerative spine disease that creates chronic pain and has already signed papers to enable euthanasia if and when her condition becomes unbearable.

"For me, I think death is something like they operate on you," she said. "You go to sleep and never wake up. For me, it's something peaceful."

You couldn't not be moved, no matter how much you pretended none of this matters. "Please," she told us, "enjoy every little moment."

Stories like abounded in the Irish team, too. Take Phillip Eaglesham, the 34-year-old shooter who contracted a terminal illness while serving in Afghanistan and who admitted, without a shred of self-pity, "I don't know if I'll be dead next year or in four years."

The Irish, on the whole, surpassed expectations, winning 11 medals, four gold, to place 28th on the overall table. Then again, we should expect them to deliver and ask for explanations if they don't; they were as well funded as those who wore green vests at the Olympics, in some cases more so.

They performed, and because of that deserve every plaudit awaiting them in Dublin airport tomorrow. They're athletes who accomplish in a realm too complex for most of us to comprehend, with so many categories that the temptation - in some cases valid - is to call them soft medals.

There were 16 different men's 100m finals on the track, 14 on the women's side. Those who argue Paralympic medals are as difficult to win as Olympic medals stand on shaky ground, but you won't hear the athletes offering such hyperbole, nor will you hear them say this is 'more than sport'.

Because in the end, they're sportspeople who happen to be disabled, not disabled people who happen to do sport. They exist in the sporting shadows, and pretty soon they'll go back again, ignored and all too often patronised either in success or failure.

All in all, though, it was difficult not to savour a lot of these Games, even if the way it was sold to us sometimes made it hard to stomach. Confession: in the end, I had an interest in these Paralympics. I think it mattered.

Irish Independent

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