Denis Kilcommons: Oscar Pistorius and Douglas Bader show the limbless can be human as well as superhuman
by Barry Gibson, Huddersfield Daily Examiner - Sep 7 2012
IT was refreshing to discover that Paralympians are not saints. They are amazing athletes who have often overcome tremendous problems to find the motivation to compete at the highest level, but they are also human.
One of the Great Britain seven-a-side football team, who furiously disagreed with a decision that went against him, berated the referee in terms that had the television commentator apologising for such bad language in the middle of the afternoon.
And then there was the outburst from South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius who claimed the sprint rival who beat him, Brazilian Alan Oliveira, had an unfair advantage because of the length of his false legs.
Both are double amputees and compete on curved steel legs that have caused them to be named blade runners. Oscar did swiftly retract and congratulate Alan on his win in the spirit of the Games, but it showed even heroes have feet of clay. Or, in this case, not.
And it does conjure the possibility that without regulation, competitors might eventually race on stilt blades 6ft tall. One small step for man but a flipping great big one for an amputee.
Which brings me to that vexing question about whether there is a line you do not cross when talking and writing about people with disabilities. When it comes down to it, we are all human beings and we all have a sense of humour. But should humour be carte blanche?
Australian Adam Hill describes himself as a stand up comedian with only one leg to stand on as he was born without a right foot. He has been breaking barriers about comedy and the disabled on Channel 4’s late night Paralympic show The Last Leg.
As he says, the Australian paralympians are among the most outspoken. Blind soccer players call wheelchair athletes ‘crips’ and they, in turn, call the soccer players ‘blindies’.
But is it all right for the rest of us to laugh? Even when then humour is unintentional?
Some years ago my wife, Maria, and I were staying in Scarborough out of season and were having a drink in the Hole In The Wall pub. There were only a few customers and most seemed locals. I tried, as you do, to join in the craic around the bar.
Two lads, who had obviously been ensconced in the opposite corner for some time, were arguing about whether to have another or go home to their wives.
“If you’re not careful,” I said to the lad who seemed reluctant to have another drink, “he’ll get you legless.”
And, as the words left my mouth, my eyes went from the pair of crutches to the lad himself to see that he was already legless. One limb was missing at the knee.
Then there was the first double amputee hero I ever met. First and only, as it happens. It was Second World War fighter ace Douglas Bader. He lost his legs in a flying accident, had metal ones fitted that made him walk like Frankenstein’s monster and flew missions until he was shot down and captured. Even then, he tried several escapes. Eventually, the Germans confiscated his legs and sent him to Colditz.
I met him in the late 1960s when he flew into Blackpool Airport to open a new Blesma (British Limbless Ex-Servicemen’s Association) home in the town. His reception committee comprised me, a photographer and two airport officials. He walked stiff-legged across the tarmac to join us and was every inch the hero I remembered from the book and the film Reach For The Sky. A terrific bloke.
He was still breaking rules, too. At his home airfield, his own plane hadn’t been ready so he had simply borrowed one that was to fly himself north. Without permission.
A mechanic joined us, having run from the far side of the field. He was a Maltese chap and reminded Bader he had worked as ground crew for him. They shook hands warmly, exchanged pleasantries and then Bader said: “Right old chap. You’d better go, now.”
“I can’t, sir,” said the mechanic.
“Sir. You’re standing on my foot.”
I have told the story many times and I’m sure Bader did, too. He didn’t count himself disabled. He just didn’t have legs, but everything else functioned, including his courage and his sense of humour. Just like the paralympians.