The Parallel Games

I could win a medal for disinterest in sport, so competitively lackadaisical am I.  But not when the Olympics are on, and absolutely not when the Paralympics finally come around.  The Paralympics are riveting, astonishing, compelling, just unmissable.

I think there is a comparison to be made between the two Games, Olympics and Paralympics. In so many ways the Paralympics are the poor cousin: witness the later broadcast time each evening; cut back from three channels to one; and the shocking fact that a few weeks ago it seemed that the Paralympics would not be properly funded due to over expenditure on Olympic ‘problems’. But the Paralympians are in no way poorer. For 11 days these men and women have brought joy, vigour and inspiration into my home. Every moment of competition seems a celebration of being alive. These people are beautiful; transparent, vulnerable and made of steel. The sense of community is so tangible you want to breathe it in. The wonder and delight of our swimming team is utterly refreshing. Paralympians seem thrilled to bits with every result they achieve, wherever they come in a race; and I’ve yet to see a bronze medallist berate themselves publicly for “loosing gold”. The commentators, too, are more generous in their approach, celebrating everything with everyone, but without any sense of concession: there is no doubt that the competition is earnest and intense. There is such evident delight on so many faces.  A broad sense of gratitude and humility pervades post-event interviews. Unappealing bravado and posturing, sadly a growing feature of the able bodied games, are practically absent; replaced with wide-eyed thrill. Sweeping generalisations, no doubt, but would you agree?

On Friday last week, just as the games were beginning, I took the armrests off my wheelchair. Unlike all other aspects of the New Bugger, they aren’t mounted well and they keep rubbing on the wheels.  I can’t say why I chose last week to make the change, but I must say my chair feels positively Paralympian without them! There is a bit more room to push, and better vision of the floor … or something. I feel like one of Australia’s fabulous Rollers zooming around our living room; we watch them and I think I’m right there on court!

I’ve been competing vicariously, I’m sure; briefly living a huge, transformed life through these beautiful men and women. I am deeply drawn towards the way Paralympians robustly embrace their own reality. Ellie Cole, Australian swimmer, lost her leg to cancer at age two. In an interview she said this, “People see it as tragic, but I think it’s the best thing to happen to me”. Gold medalist in both single and double wheelchair tennis events, Dylan Alcott, said, “I wouldn’t change my situation for the world”. I also heard Alcott say, “Everybody wants to be different, and what better way than to have a disability and embrace it and get out there and do something with it”. These ideas are unorthodox and confronting. In contrast, I find myself heartily sick of our aspirational world, where the vaporous notions of perfection are thrust at us from an endless supply of doctored images, clinically targeted advertising, super-stardom and other deceitful narratives. Sadly his has a parallel even in the Christian world where the subtle, constant, underlying pressure of divine healing and a spiritualised version of upward mobility become oppressive to many, like me, who have not discovered it.

The words of Leonard Cohen’s very famous song come to mind:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Laurence Mooney, comedian and a panel member on 7Two’s nightly review of the games, described his sudden introduction to the world of disability at the London Paralympics four years ago. Kurt Fearnley, Australian wheelchair medalist and four time Paralympian, had deliberately taken him first to the food hall in the athletes village, where Mooney saw this basic function, eating, being achieved in innumerable, complex ways by people of every imaginable shape. “It’s humanity”, Mooney said, “the bottom line is humanity”

My Favourite Wife and I have loved every moment of this glorious, hard, serious, gentle, humane gathering; and I dare to say the world is a much richer place for it.




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