Postscript from London: the Paralympics

The Olympics were wonderful and the Opening Ceremony was bonkers; truly British and it probably baffled half the world. What was the Queen doing being thrown out of a helicopter by James Bond?  What were all those hospital beds about? For me one of the most inspiring moments was seeing the Saudi Arabian women in the rowing scull pairs competing with beautiful white veils; they took part and that was all that counted. But the highlight of all was the Paralympics.

This was a life changing moment for most of us who watched it. No longer was the talk about what they could not do, but what incredible athletes they all were. For over two weeks we in Britain were glued to the Paralympics, which were broadcast on TV all day, every day. The Olympic Stadium and venues were packed till 10.00 pm every night - the public could not get enough - unlike past Paralympics where they have had to ship in rent-a-mob to fill the stadia. Many champions of disability rights have said this event has done the most to elevate the cause of acceptance of difference.

Sixty-four years ago Stoke Mandeville Hospital near London became the spiritual home of the Paralympic movement. In 1948 Dr. Ludwig Guttmann hosted a sports competition for British World War II veteran patients with spinal cord injuries. He believed that sport would assist their recovery and rehabilitation. The first games were called the 1948 International Wheelchair Games, and were intended to coincide with the 1948 Olympics in London. The Games, which became known as the Stoke Mandeville Games, were held again in 1952, with Dutch competitors taking place, making it the first international competition. The Stoke Mandeville Games are now considered the precursor to the Paralympic movement.

I was lucky enough to meet two of the USA Paralympics team on a transatlantic flight and we talked about the organisation and the success.  One was a coach and photographer, himself a medal winner at four Paralympic Games – he was unambiguous in his view that this year’s London Paralympics have done the most ever to advance the cause of disability sport.  I felt so lucky to sit next to a young bronze medal winner who was utterly inspiring – nothing is going to stop her – she is getting ready for Rio. 

For the first time most of us were watching these athletes discard their prostheses and discrete clothing meant to shield us from embarrassment and we saw them as hugely professional and determined competitors. We fell in love with the winners and the losers, their joy of competing and their sheer determination to succeed. There was unwavering enthusiasm from the public. It was life affirming.  We were all together. The fog of limitation has been lifted.

Seb Coe at the closing ceremony quoted a doctor talking about the Paralympics - who had been on duty at London’s 7/7 bombings "then I had seen the worst of mankind - now I have seen the best of mankind".

The talk is no longer of Olympians and Paralympians - now they are all athletes.

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