Following the massive success of the Games of the 30th Olympiad, the London 2012 Paralympics have been unfolding to rave reviews and dramatically changed perceptions of the disabled in the United Kingdom and those parts of the world fortunate enough to receive some television coverage of the event.
The word ‘Paralympics‘ refers not to paraplegics, as is often mistakenly and offensively assumed. Rather, it has to do with the origin of these Games as the parallel Olympics, going back to 1948 when Dr Ludwig Guttmann, a German neurologist working in the UK with World War II veterans with spinal injuries, began to incorporate sport into their rehabilitation programmes and set up an inter-hospital competition at the same time as that year’s London Olympics. It was an approach to healing that had as much to do with restoring dignity and purpose to people whose bodies and lives had been shattered by war as it had to do with physical therapy.
By the Rome Olympics of 1960, the modern Paralympics were born and they have gone from strength to strength, with a few hiccups along the way, so much so that the London 2012 edition is, for the first time ever, playing to sell-out crowds.
The principal aim of the organisers of these Games is not to draw attention to the various disabilities of the athletes but to focus on the sport itself and the thrill of competition involving athletes who just happen to be different. Here is a gathering of people from all around the world who enjoy competitive sport and who seek to push body and mind far beyond their comfort zones to achieve goals that might otherwise be unthinkable. They are people pretty much like the rest of us, yet different in terms of the physical and mental disabilities with which they have had to cope and the personal adversity and trauma they have had to overcome.
The perfect body and the perfect mind may be ideals trumpeted through the ages but human perfection is a myth. We are all imperfect though, admittedly, some of us may appear to be more obviously and cruelly so than others.
Anyone privileged enough to have seen the opening ceremony of the Paralympics would have borne witness to a remarkable parade of humanity – humanity, that is, in all its glorious imperfection. And to have seen and felt a bit of the mood of the athletes entering the Olympic Stadium was to have been moved by a joyful reaffirmation of all that is beautiful and inspirational about the human spirit.
The British team entered, as had their able-bodied counterparts a month previously, to the strains of David Bowie’s rock anthem, ‘Heroes.‘ That was perhaps the major flaw of a dramatic opening ceremony that more than did justice to the wonder of the Paralympics – all the teams competing should have been accompanied by the same soundtrack. For all the paralympians are heroes.
In the words of Stephen Hawking, Emeritus Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, the same chair held by Sir Isaac Newton, and one of the most brilliant minds in the world, trapped in a body ravaged by motor neurone disease, who appropriately helped launch the London 2012 Paralympics, these Games are about “transforming our perception of the world. We are all different, there is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being, but we share the same human spirit.” Indeed.
The paralympians, like disabled people everywhere, are first and foremost people, fellow members of the human race. Their deeds this past fortnight have been courageous and awe-inspiring. They are all fully deserving of our respect and admiration.
In Guyana, we can claim a similar source of inspiration in the members of our differently abled sporting community such as Hensworth Abrams, John Antoo, Audrey Bowlin, Denis Burns, Yvonne DeAbreu and Andre Richardson. It is a pity that we could not be represented at the London Paralympics but we are heartened that thoughts have already turned to ensuring participation in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.
The Paralympics are showing how sport can help to transform attitudes to disability. We too need to embrace fully this change in perception.