Belfast Telegraph

Monday 14 July 2014

James Lawton: Paralympic Games not just another Olympics

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 28: Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius of South Africa smiles during a press conference ahead of the London 2012 Paralympic Games on August 28, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

As the great overture to the Paralympic Games plays out in the Olympic Stadium which will always be remembered so fondly as the place that created, however briefly, a Camelot of sport, there is an insistent, relentless message.

It says that what follows over the next 11 days has to be seen in the same light, and with the same fervour, as the 30th Olympics which for so many compelling reasons are already being seen as arguably the most heart-warming of all time.



This is a huge burden for even the bravest and most resolute of the sportsmen and women who today prepare for the action which in so many ways is guaranteed to illuminate so many of our perhaps too easily care-worn lives, and the instinct here is to lighten it a little.



There is no easy way to do this, not least because of the risk of even one patronising breath on a roll call of competitors which would be entitled to react to such clumsiness with the contempt that has always been the hard-earned and untouchable property of those who have shown the courage to confront and reject the most discouraging possibilities. Indeed there is no trick in this ambition to divest a glorious statement of character and human endeavour of some of its unprecedented hype.



There is just a simple, humble need, to say that in seeking some kind of reprise of the Olympics, some easy reproduction of the flag-waving, medal-hoarding euphoria which swept the nation, we may well, and even with the very best of intentions, be missing the utterly unique and life-enhancing point of the Paralympics.



If many of the marketing techniques and patriotic exhortations are similar and in some cases inseparable, it surely needs to be said that opening today is not another, if necessarily restricted, version of the Olympics, but something which has at its heart a quality that a dozen Usain Bolts, operating in the most flamboyant reaches of their nature and their talent, would be hard pushed to match. These are not the Olympics MkII, they are the Paralympics of a new age of understanding of human possibilities and if some of the rush for tickets is partly to do with the spirit created by the first event, there is no question that other factors are at work.



The most irresistible is that Paralympic sport is not only a proven spectacle of superbly pitched competition, one which on the big stage of Beijing four years ago gave countless examples of heroes and heroines to be admired not just for their determination but also brilliantly achieved accomplishment. It is the point made with some considerable force by the American world champion sprinter Jerome Singleton, who next week challenges the South African mould-breaker and Olympian Oscar Pistorius in the 100 metres also targeted by Britain's Jonnie Peacock. "Recognise the ability, not the disability," Singleton commands, and that is no hardship, no more than it was to be moved by the joy of the victorious and instantly beloved Ellie Simmonds in Beijing four years ago.



Such humanity, and desire to succeed, will no doubt suffuse more esoteric disciplines like the Italian version of bowls, Boccia, and the demands on skill of Sitting Volleyball and the blunt aggression of wheelchair rugby, which so happily defines itself as Murderball.



It is also true that it will be impossible to ride the Javelin to the Olympic Park without the certainty of encountering someone who has brought not just the most formidable commitment and discipline but also an example of that passion without which any kind of life, set in any circumstances, can hardly seem worth the living. In this the appeal of the Paralympics is so fierce, so universal, that some of the loudest cries for a repeat of the support that buoyed so many members of the Great Britain team during the Olympics have tended, at least in these ears, to sound a faintly discordant note.



With impeccable motivation, no doubt, leaders of the British team have been calling for still more national fervour. Sir Philip Craven, a wheelchair basketball Paralympian and now president of the International Paralympic Committee, says: "In Beijing, China topped the medal table; for Britain to be highly successful here is very important. It's got to be good news, for people coming to watch their heroes compete."



Britain's chef de mission Craig Hunter is even more bullish, declaring: "We have got our biggest ever team. All of them are absolutely capable of winning medals, the traditional sports of cycling, rowing, swimming, athletics – they are going to be bags full of medals. We are going to be looking for more medals across more sports. They are out there to prove some points about how wonderful Paralympic sport really is."



Yet who needs converting? The wonder of the Paralympics is that they are about sport in the truest and deepest way. They are about the highest possible achievement. They are a profound statement about the value of competition, of drawing from yourself the very best you have and, yes, if a gold medal in the 100 metres dash happens to be the reward, and like Peacock you happen to be wearing a British vest, it is certainly no matter for complaint. But then if you have performed to your capacity, so too is a gruelling though medal-less episode of Murderball.



One of the great beauties of the Olympics was the response of the crowd to high achievement in every venue, whatever the identity of the winner. If Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis were bathed in acclaim it was at no cost to the glory of a Bolt or the unforgettable 800 metres world record breaker from Kenya, David Rudisha.



At the Paralympics these next 11 days there is every reason to believe in a similar and perhaps even greater reaction.



They are the Games, after all, which parade not so much the colours of the nations but hearts beneath them which would ideally unite us all.

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