So the London 2012 great Summer of Sport came to a close this evening as the Paralympics came to an end at the Olympic Village.
It has been a fantastic display of achievement on many fronts. Not only did we witness man going faster, further, higher, we learnt that the British are not as bad as we imagined, that a warm, friendly environment is as much a part of London as it is in Sydney, Beijing or Athens.
We saw 70,000 people emerge from the shadows and step up to the mark to become Games Makers, a fitting tribute in name to a voluntary army of individuals who made the face of the London Games. Some of us were blessed with continuous coverage of every sport on individual channels. We got interviews, felt inspired and challenged and impressed by the talent, determination and ability of men and women, young and old, of every colour, creed and walk of life.
We celebrated Iranian success in London, we rejoiced at Libyan sporting representatives. There were smiles and tears, pride and heartache and all the finest things attributed with the human endeavour of sporting achievement.
So, what did it all mean for me? What did I get out of the amazing display of talent and British pride.
To be honest, I was lucky enough to be caught up in a world of excitement and intrigue first hand, and was thrilled by the opportunity, and have memories that will last me a life time. Did that move me, or have a lasting impact on my perception of the world? Sadly I can only say that as a person that loves sporting endeavour, and as an avid sports watching fan, it was to me just another Olympic games. Yes admittedly, it was in my back garden, I got to participate in the event, and greatly enjoyed that. However there was nothing fundamentally outstanding about it for me.
That was until three weeks later, when for the first time ever, I was almost forced to become wrapped up in the Paralympic games. For anyone living in the UK, they will know that it was almost impossible not to get caught up in the fever of it all, as British Channel 4 television mounted a relentless coverage of 11 days of ferocious sport.
One of the first things I noticed that gave me pause for thought was the song choice that Channel 4 used for its theme tune to its coverage. I was somewhat mystified as to its choice, as the full song is nothing about sporting endeavour, or celebrating the good of mankind. The track, Harder Than You Think by Public Enemy is a rap tune that talks about the hardships of Afro American people and I suppose that it was drawing parallels with the prejudices that disabled people experience that prompted Channel 4 to choose the track. However, after hearing the tune several hundred times during the many advertising breaks that peppered the coverage of the sport, I began to hone in on the opening line that the edited version of the song used on the tele.
"Thank you for letting us be ourself."
It was this that really pricked my consciousness and in some ways, actually got me a little wound up. I mean, for starters, people with disabilities are not second class citizens. They are not a special breed to be allowed to be themselves once in a while, for which they can celebrate being allowed to be "out" and free. Why on earth should they have thank us for allowing them to be themselves. I mean they are who they are, people with soul, spirits, passions, desires. They bleed red, and cry tears just like you or me. Maybe that was me being over sensitive, but after hearing the line over and over again, I did begin to wonder if anyone else had noticed it. Maybe the Paralympians do feel a need to thank the world for recognising them on the same platform that we do able bodied Olympians, but we don't expect Olympic competitors to thank us for being allowed to be Olympians. Where is the equality in that?
I was fortunate at a young age to be confronted by disability first hand, by having a friend who was an amputee, and maybe that has given me a more open out look on disability. I learnt not to be shy to look at a disabled person, or speak to them as an equal, without the feeling of curiosity, or the guilt of that same curiosity. I learnt to deal with the awkward stares and the lack of words. I got over the feeling of pity and the feeling of wanting to protect or prevent further hurt from coming to my friend.
In reality I discovered that Ian was just like me. Yeah he only had one leg, but in every other way he was a horny teenage boy with dreams, insecurities, determinations and abilities. He was resourceful and boy could be accomplish something once he'd set his mind to it. While in our later years, we have lost touch, he is just as successful today, in fact being the proud owner of a restaurant and a fully trained master chef somewhere in Austria last I heard. I take my hat off to him, and knew from way back then that he'd be a successful man one day.
But this is the thing. He didn't want pity or special treatment. He never had to thank me for treating him as someone different, or being allowed to be himself. Now looking back, and thinking about things a little more, I realise that as children we don't have prejudices. We are less inclined to make judgements or draw conclusions based on our own shortcomings and inability to deal with disability or disfigurement. I have seen people unable to look at a disabled person while talking to them. I've heard people say less than pleasant things about them. I've even been guilty of being patronising towards a disabled person myself. Maybe in as much as our kids are able to look beyond the limitations and be accepting and open and friendly, we can become, or more importantly I can become more understanding of a disabled person to be seen first as a human being, and second as a person with a disability.
While I like to think I am not too bad, I found myself thinking "shame" as I looked on at some of the participants on track, and I woke up to a realisation that even though I may think I am not that bad, there is so much more that I could do to be more aware of disability and learn to consider them as equal. Seeing beyond the disability to the true person inside, and give everyone the same chance I would give an able bodied person, or desire to be given myself.
The UK are pretty damn good at looking out for the interests of disabled people. I have seen more provision for people with all manner of challenging conditions in this country than anywhere else I have visited, and that is something to be proud of. But while our institutions and government maybe get it a little more than the average Joe Bloggs on the street, I honestly do think that this time around, the Paralympic Games in London have challenged a nations perception of disability and disabled people. I know it challenged me.
One of the commentators said of the games that, "back in Sydney the Paralympic Games gave disabled people a platform to become equal with their able bodied brothers and sisters in sport. The London 2012 Games gave them a platform to become heroes", and it was this statement that made me realise that disability in my mind has come of age. It is not something to fear or pity or look down on. Disability is a challenge in life, just as much as able bodied living is a challenge. Yes they are on different scales and make life difficult in a variety of ways, but give a man an opportunity and watch in amazement as he learns to perfect, excel and master his art. London 2012 showed me and the world that regardless of adversity, application and dedication to the task at hand, hard work, guts and a desire to win is a part of every walk of life, able bodied or otherwise.
Thought for today - "Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit." - Napoleon Hill
Song for today - Every Tear is a Waterfall by Coldplay