By Cole Moreton for London 2012
The thrilling achievements of the Paralympians have caused us to see them as role models, not victims. They have changed our lives.
I was on my feet in the Olympic stadium, yelling at the top of my voice, when I thought of her. Sharon, a friend from a long time ago. She lived a mile or so from where this great theatre of miracles now stands.
We grew up together in these parts, back when Stratford was a landscape of scrapyards, dodgy lock-ups and falling-down factories. The sort of place where The Sweeney would corner a gang of villains. Not a wasteland, despite what the politicians say, but far from a paradise. Sharon lived in a council house by the railway yards with her mum, who never let her go anywhere. Sharon had cerebral palsy.
She could walk fast enough, and boy could she talk, but at the age of 20 she had never even been to the West End. It’s only 20 minutes away on the Tube, but her mum would not take her and she certainly would not let her go on her own. The world was deemed too hostile for someone like her.
Not surprisingly, Sharon didn’t have the confidence to challenge this. Not until she fell in with a group of us and started to push the boundaries. That meant coming along one night to the Lee Valley Ice Rink.
It’s still there, almost within the boundaries of the Olympic Park. Back then it was new, and best known for a rowdy Saturday night disco on ice. We went as a group, and were almost in, but Sharon was refused.
“No,” said the bouncer, talking to us and not to her. “She can’t skate.” Sharon was outraged, of course. “I can do it!” she shouted, but he would not yield. So we decided that half of us would skate and half would watch from the side. “No,” said the bouncer again. “I’m not letting her in. She’ll put everyone else off.”
Now there were tears, of frustration and righteous anger. I thought of them in that moment of high emotion, shouting along with my children in the stadium, as I felt my eyes well up at yet another great performance in these extraordinary Games. This time it was a 400m race in the T38 class, and the winner had cerebral palsy.
I wonder if Sharon was there. What would she make of athletes with her condition winning to such acclaim, so close to the scene of her humiliation? Well, one of her humiliations. She was used to being shouted at in the street, even spat on. She was feisty and funny but few people ever listened to what she shouted after them.
We lost touch when I went abroad, and I have been unable to find her again. I would have loved her to be there. For one thing, she might have been able to make more sense of the classification system. It may be the only way of ensuring fair play but it is fiendishly difficult to understand. You end up playing a sort of disability Top Trumps, trying to work out why someone with two apparently good legs is racing against someone with one leg. “How is that fair?”
It’s all part of the learning process we have been through as a nation over these past weeks.
The Olympics reminded us that the British are funny, that we can laugh at ourselves and that there are heroes among us – role models in a nation sick and tired of glamour models and reality shows.
The Games also showed us how much we are changing. Plenty was made of Mo Farah becoming a British hero, having arrived here as a refugee from Mogadishu; but perhaps even more significantly, nothing was made at all of Jessica Ennis being the daughter of a man from Jamaica. That is how it should be – but Sharon would know how significant that was. She was of mixed race, and she grew up with me on the streets of the East End when skinheads marched here with NF tattooed on their hands.
London 2012 was a celebration of new Britishness. We didn’t want the Games to stop. Let’s be honest, that’s why so many of us bought tickets for the Paralympics: to keep the good times rolling, to see the venues and take our kids, so they could say they were there.
Maybe, in our ignorance, some of us gave the impression that these tickets were a consolation prize for not being able to get in to see Bolt or Mo. But my children laughed in my face at that.
“Dad, the Paralympics are better!” said Josh, and his sisters joined in. “Yeah, these people are amazing. Yeah, they have to be amazing even to get there in the first place, have you seen them? And then they do amazing things as well!”
At first I put this down to youthful enthusiasm and propaganda – including that jaw-dropping Channel 4 advertisement for “The Superhumans”. Paralympians had visited schools. Children had played goalball or seated volleyball. They were way ahead of their parents in understanding the Games. But then I began to watch.
The morning that Sarah and Barney Storey won medals on the same cycling track was a love story spun in gold. Half an hour’s yomp across the park, Ellie Simmonds won a race as thrilling as any that has been seen in the Aquatic Centre. The 100m clash between Jonnie Peacock and Oscar Pistorius was a sporting contest of the finest kind.
But to be honest, these events are easy to love. They are easy to watch and to understand. These are athletes who strive to match the non-disabled and who often race against and beat them.
The venues, the rituals and the kits have all been the same, so that some events have seemed like the Olympics Plus. Ilke Wyludda, a veteran German discus thrower, said last week: “It is unprecedented to have an 80,000 crowd at the Paralympics. The way the British have done it, the Games have become almost synonymous with the Olympics.”
But there has been another Paralympics, too. Another Games, far more challenging to the spectator. Easy and patronising terms like “brave” fail when you see a man who has no arms and only one leg win gold in the backstroke.
How are you supposed to react? By getting to your feet again and yelling for Juan Reyes until your throat goes raw, in tribute to the sheer bloody-mindedness that got him from Mexico to London 2012 in the first place, let alone that mind-boggling win. How is it possible for anyone to do that? Is it even backstroke?
These Games have caused us to question ourselves, as much as what we are seeing. The writer Melanie Reid, who became tetraplegic after falling off her horse, wrote as they began: “Never underestimate the challenge of life with devastating injury or damage, the extent of the sadistic battle involved in getting out of bed and facing every day. Never forget that this amounts to a shared hinterland of practical and emotional despair, above which every Paralympian has risen. But then, of course, that victory simply becomes a given.”
She continued: “The ability to defeat a screwed-up body gets the athletes merely to first base. Now comes the second great task, the years of dedication, self-sacrifice and sweat that will qualify them to perform on this particular international stage.”
We know that now. Some of us didn’t think about it before, in our blindness and indifference. We have learned. That’s why we give standing ovations to those who trail in last. Not because we pity them, but because that kind of world class determination deserves applause.
The International Olympic Committee has built a pseudo religion around the idea that it is not the winning but the taking part that counts – but at the Paralympics, that rhetoric becomes reality.
The Olympics often seem to worship youth, beauty and physical perfection. (The Americans are particularly devout, which may be why their media has almost entirely stayed away in the last couple of weeks, unable to watch something that goes against their aspirations and assumptions.) At the Paralympics, the competitors are older and their bodies are not perfect. There is physical beauty in abundance – the ceaseless smile of Hannah Cockroft, for example, lights up a television screen. But it is not always easy to be a spectator at these Games.
Take boccia. They say it has the skill of boules and the strategy of chess, but there is also something unsettling about watching a competitor so severely impaired that he can only roll the ball by starting it off with his head, so that it rolls down a slope. Should we even be watching? Of course we should. The sport allows us to see the human. We should have seen him before – that was our failing. The Games have helped us see victors, not victims.
The Games Maker Emily Yates, 19, who plays wheelchair basketball at home in Leeds, told me last week that people were looking at her differently now. “The taxi driver smiled at me because he thought I was a Paralympian. I thought, ‘He thinks I’m famous.’ I’m not, but that’s cool.”
My friend Catherine von Ruhland, who lives in south-west London and uses a dialysis machine three times a week, has come to the Games as often as possible. “I was impressed by what was happening in the Olympic Park as a whole, and not just in the sports arenas. Disabled people were accommodated, supported, acknowledged and given respect,” she said. “Walking through Kingston town centre after a visit to the Park I was struck by how odd it seemed that there was not one person in a wheelchair, without sight, or lacking one or more limbs, to be seen. During the Paralympics it has felt as if we’ve been given a glimpse of how we’re supposed to treat each other.”
It’s a fragile thing. The British athletes hid their lanyards during the opening ceremony in protest at the sponsorship of Atos, the company used by the Government to assess disability benefits. The booing of George Osborne was evidence of anger. One recent survey showed that the public thought people with disabilities were being treated unfairly; but another showed that some were still being called names and spat at in the street and in playgrounds.
So it’s not all good. Not by a long way. We won’t know for a while what lasting impact the Paralympics have had on us. But there are signs that it will be positive. Lives will be changed, if they haven’t already. Attitudes certainly have.
Our children have watched Paralympians compete on home soil. They have embraced them wholeheartedly as heroes in the same way as Olympians. Maybe even more so. That has to mean something.
As the most impressive and revelatory Games of all time come to an end today, we can be proud. I hope you saw it, Sharon. I hope you were there, in the stadium, in the old manor, watching. Jumping for joy. Cheering them all.
And I hope that old bouncer was, too.