From London with love and lessons about disability

10 Sep

The London Paralympics ended over the weekend. And what a spectacle they have been – very competitive, thoroughly enjoyable and played in the friendliest of spirits.

For eleven days, the games showed human beings at their best – friendly, united in celebrating the spirit of endurance, and the ability to  conquer physical and other kinds of limitations, ….

For once I saw sport for what it really is – pleasant, even passionate, competition, not deadly rivalry; more personal fulfilment and less the expression of nationalistic fervour. Intense personal rivalry, individual or national arrogance and showboating were markedly absent. It was sport as it should be played – for personal pleasure and satisfaction and collective entertainment.

The athletes competed fiercely, but hugged at the end in a spirit of generosity and genuine appreciation of each other’s efforts. Spectators cheered and roared on the competitors regardless of nationality. Yes, there was nationalistic passion, especially from the British home crowd, but it was largely good natured.

It warmed the heart to see three-foot tall guys take on fellows double their height. They did not in any appear overawed, but thoroughly enjoyed the contest and the limelight. It was a joy to see the visually impaired play football and celebrate scoring a goal with unrestrained excitement, or sprint to a photo finish in a 100 metre race. My favourite in this respect was a young Brazilian woman who did a jig with her guide on winning the race and at the medals award ceremony.

Who wouldn’t applaud the sheer grit of a young man who threw away his crutches to jump over two metres in the high jump? It looked like a biblical injunction to get up and jump.

In the spirit of good will the games generated, it was possible to forget, if only for a moment, the dark side of humanity – various conflicts across the world, including the one next door in the Democratic Republic of Congo. .Even Monsieur Lambert Mende’s incredible lies and incitement to ethnic violence were momentarily lost in the euphoria of good feeling.

The games showed us what human beings are capable of. We can put our differences aside to celebrate the indomitable human spirit, or as was said at the closing of the games, “the triumph of the human spirit”. We have the power to overcome many odds as the athletes showed in conquering adversity that would have been debilitating in the past. Paralympics athletes have shown the rest of us the limitless possibilities for humanity to express our dignity, work and live together provided we are willing to work hard at it and as long as there is an abundance of good will.

George Orwell was obviously wrong when he wrote seventy years ago that “sport is an unfailing cause for ill-will” and that “at the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare”. International sport is, of course, nationalistic, even the most individual sort like tennis. And Orwell was writing in the shadow of the most virulent form of nationalism in modern history. That may explain his savaging it in this manner: “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting”. But he can be excused: he had not experienced the London 2012 Paralympics Games.

There is, however, a sad footnote to a happy event by all accounts. There were few African athletes. True, there were the usual suspects – Kenya, South Africa and the North African countries. This time big Nigeria, perennial under-achievers, made a powerful point in powerlifting at the games. But even these participated in limited sports. Of course, there were others that made a huge impression, not necessarily for their success, but by their presence. The Rwandan sitting volleyball team won the hearts of Londoners, although they lost most of their games.

The reasons for the small numbers of African athletes, like for the other Olympics, must be because few countries invest much in sports. In this particular case, attitudes to people with disabilities have not changed fast enough. The notion that they have the talent and ability to participate in a full range of human activity has not yet taken full hold. And because of this, there isn’t enough investment in sports for people with disabilities.

Hopefully, the London 2012 Paralympics will inspire a change in attitude. African countries must wake up to the reality that athletes with disabilities have the talent, ability, competitive spirit and determination to triumph over limitations. All they need is support and the opportunity to display them.

That, and the refusal to bow to any form of adversity, has been for me the enduring lesson from the London 2012 games. We can expect more and better in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

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