Disabled? No, Just Athletes. Go Team SA!

2012-08-30 06:35

DON'T  judge me by my disability, judge me by my ability,” says Oscar Pretorius, Team SA Paralympian superstar.

Or words to that effect. The likes of Oscar and Natalie du Toit who have been receiving heavy media exposure here in the UK, are, rest assured, doing their country proud along with the rest of the team as not only sportsmen and women, but as ambassadors. And believe me in the light of a lot of the news emanating from South Africa at the moment the country can do with all the good publicity it can get. The cricketers warmed us up, the Paralympians are going to finish the job.

As I watched the Paralympics opening ceremony last night I felt a frisson of pride and yes, even excitement when Team SA marched into the stadium. Their unadulterated exuberance was infectious and the spectators, launched into the now famous London Olympic “roar”, spurred on by not only the moment, but also by the emotionally-charged night as a whole.  Athletes (I refuse to call them disabled), carried their flags high under remarkably clear skies as for once the rain was replaced by another kind of downpour – tears of joy, pride and an overwhelming, dare I say it, sense of downright old-fashioned values.

There’s a bit of a backlash going on against “back story” reporting on the athletes instead of focusing on athletic abilities. The feeling seems to be that these are athletic stars, at the Paralympics on merit and excellence alone and the “how, why and when” of how they became disabled in the first place should take second place. I could not agree more. A few weeks ago when the Olympics were at their height, a lot of media emphasis was on the intense training the athletes undertook in the four years leading up to “the day”. You know the kind of thing – three hours in the morning, go to work, an hour at lunchtime, two hours at night, seven-days-a-week etc. etc.

Hello? And Paralympians don’t?

Frustratingly there hasn’t been as much of that in the build up to the Paralympics as their should have been. It’s all been; “lost a leg inAfghanistan”, “born like that”, “lost after an accident”, whatever. That’s wrong to my mind and I really believe, very strongly, like Oscar, that the magnificent Paralympians ought to be judged on ability and ability alone. Anyway, I reckon the likes of the wheelchair rugby or “murderball” players could show the “abled” players a thing or two when it comes to displays of courage and skills. Keep an eye out for it – it’s fabulous, frightening and really dangerous. “Murderball” – what a name! It says it all.

There are more than 4 000 athletes from 166 countries competing and if it wasn't so damn tiring, me not being fit and all, I would have stood and applauded them all individually. No, not because of their courage in the face of “disabilities”, but for the same reason that I would have done the same for the other competitors three weeks ago. For their achievements in their chosen sports and as a thank you for the entertainment and excitement they bring us. For a short time every four years world unity, peace and tolerance almost look like becoming a reality. This was certainly brought home last night when, during the parade and because of alphabetical proximity,Iran,  Iraq and Israel were closer together than they ever will be in so-called real life. Turns out the luck of the draw carried an important message for us all.

I also found it very moving to watch the smaller countries on parade, many of them African. In some cases a handful of athletes marched proudly alongside teams of 300 or more. Starkly, the richer countries featured wheelchairs worth thousands while nations like Mali battled on with ramshackle equipment, some of it obviously antiquated. However, I think it’s a case of what you achieve rather than how you do it.

When Lord Sebastian Coe said in his speech, “prepare to be dazzled, prepare to be moved”, I hope he meant "moved"  in the true spirit of sporting excellence rather than as a subtle push in the direction of asking his audience to consider the athletes’ as somehow different from the rest of us. On second thoughts perhaps they are. They’re people who have achieved brilliance in their chosen fields, something most of us can only dream of. Don’t for goodness sake when the medals begin to flow, start your conversations with “aw, shame, did you see…”? Rather, “Wow! Did you see…”!

Bless ‘em all.

Go Team SA!

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