Because disability is not an inability

2008-09-12 00:00

Over the years, I have been reluctant to pay much attention to disabled sport. It was glorious that it took place and respect for the participants never wavered, but watching was another matter. Of course the extraordinary champions were known, not least those raised locally, especially Oscar Pistorius and Natalie du Toit. But admiration did not extend to appreciation. The Paralympic Games currently taking place in Beijing have changed all that. It has not been a question of feeling the warm glow of worthiness. They have been fun.

A variety of reasons lay behind the long-standing unwillingness to watch previous Paralympics and other similar activities. Nowadays, television covers so much excellent sport that anything less than the best seems mundane. Accordingly, only the highest levels of sport attract large crowds any longer. Soccer and rugby are exceptions because clubs and provinces have retained their traditional followings. Moreover, the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Bryan Habana turn out regularly for their domestic teams so that supporters can see the leading players in action every weekend.

But it goes further. At its peak, sport has an aesthetic appeal. Usain Bolt is a wonderfully fluent runner. David Gower’s off-drive and Michael Holding’s approach counted among the pleasures of life. The sight of Stephen Larkham ghosting through a non-existent gap provoked gasps. Roger Federer has not played a tennis shot in his career, only strokes. A horse thundering down a straight, a golf shot soaring into the sky and a pole vaulter reaching towards the heavens — everyone will have their own ideas of beauty in sport. Disabled sport might stir the spirit, but it was hard to imagine it enriching the soul.

And so, a little guiltily, I avoided it. Over the years, I had come across various handicapped sportspeople and had found them to be friendly and determined. One lad, whose legs ended at the knees, was a regular in youth matches in Somerset. Apart from running between the wickets, he could hold his own. Colin Milburn and the Nawab of Pataudi played Test cricket with one eye. Tony Greig revealed that he suffered from epilepsy. All of them widened our impression of human capability.

And it goes further. A decade ago I came across Fred Dove, a thalidomide victim (thalidomide was a drug to treat morning sickness during pregnancy that instead harmed unborn babies dreadfully). Dove’s legs were short and powerful and his arms ended at the elbows, with his hands forming themselves into hooks. By now he was working for the World Service in Sudan. Visiting Khartoum for cricketing purposes (the club was run by two fanatics from Yorkshire) — which may be tautological — I played squash with Dove. Beforehand he said: “I know what you are thinking. Play your hardest.” Although restricted by his reach, he scurried around the court and it was an enjoyable game. He played cricket as well, caught two catches at slip, somehow sent down crafty slowies and batted in the middle order. His remaining ambition was to reach 10.

Nevertheless, I did not watch disabled sport, thought it might be embarrassing. Squeamishness also played a part in it. Nor did it seem fitting that such a fuss was made over it. Frankly it seemed patronising.

Happily, these games have provided enlightenment. Competitors are split into all sorts of categories. At one stage, I came across the 100 metres final for victims of cerebral palsy.

Actually, victim is the wrong word. That is the point they are making. Anyhow, the women charged down the straight with gusto and the winner was rightfully proud.

Next came the final for women with one or more legs missing. When the leader fell in sight of the line, and brought down her closest rival, it might have been undermining. But it was not like that.

The atmosphere in the stadium and between the runners was too embracing for that. These athletes were pushing themselves to the limits. The winner burst into tears of joy. After a bad start, Pistorious won the men’s race with a late surge. Seriousness and pride could also be found in the pool, where some fine races were staged. In both cases, large and boisterous crowds added to the mood.

But it was the basketball that caught the eye. Normally it is not my cup of rooibos. Not much was expected from wheelchair-bound players. But they played a fast and skilful game, dashing up and down the court, feinting, shooting, fouling and blocking. Now and then a player fell over, which also happens in ordinary basketball, and they righted themselves and carried on regardless. By accident or design, South Africa’s team was a rich enough mixture to satisfy even parliamentary overseers. And they played with rare verve, glaring at referees, urging each other on, cursing when passes went astray and celebrating victories in style. They were playing for keeps.

Of course, it is required to praise the Paralympics. After all they are as worthy as an apple. But the games have not merely told 1 000 uplifting stories. They have been entertaining, and instructive.

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