In America, Olympic season is over. Our country’s official broadcaster of the games, NBC, decided to skip coverage of the Paralympics, the contests for disabled athletes. In London, though, where the Paralympics began last week, Channel 4 and the local newspapers are covering the Paralympics just as enthusiastically as the city’s media followed the non-disabled Olympics last month. The prime-time reports and front-page tabloid and broadsheet ink alike reveal unexpected news: the Paralympics and their participants are fascinating. As a crop of world-class athletes rivets Britain, Americans are missing out.
London inaugurated the proceedings with a masterly opening ceremony. Just as with the ceremonies that bracketed the 2012 Olympic Games last month, the Paralympics featured their own global superstar, physicist Stephen Hawking, who convened the competition with an ode to mankind’s aspiration for knowledge and achievement: “Ever since the dawn of civilization, people have craved an understanding of the underlying order of the world. Why it is as it is and why it exists at all.”
The point was clear. The world’s universal disability is ignorance, and we all seek to overcome it. Other defects and injuries pale in comparison. A performer followed up with lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “O brave new world that has such people in it!” As entertainers from a wheelchair-bound parachutist to a legless hand dancer wowed the audience, obvious disabilities faded into human artistry. Dancers, singers, and speakers weren’t there to be pitied. They were there to “dazzle,” as Olympics chief Sebastian Coe said—or to face the London critics’ equal-opportunity wrath. The athletes, too, have one task: to win.
Thanks in part to NBC’s conviction that American viewers aren’t interested in the event, most of us likely don’t know that the Paralympics are not the Special Olympics. The Special Olympics represent a worthy cause: supporting intellectually challenged people and their families by boosting capabilities and self-esteem through sports. The Paralympics are neither a charity nor a cause. Like their Olympian counterparts, Paralympians aren’t interested in anything but medaling. Athletes win or lose gold, silver, and bronze—and are thus exhilarated or disappointed—according to their own work, talent, equipment, and luck. Nobody “wins” here just because he or she is missing a limb or two.
The competitive spirit breeds ingenuity. As the Daily Mail informed readers last Friday in a front-section spread of players and sports, “master archer” Matt Stutzman, an American born with no arms, uses his feet to fire from his shoulder-harnessed bow. Chinese swimmer Lu Dong, also armless, can’t hold the wall of the pool before a race, so she bites into a towel. (And as with the other Olympics, competitive drive also breeds cheating, with some athletes allegedly overstating their disabilities to compete in less physically demanding categories.)
Britain has unabashedly rooted for Team GB. The press cheered on Sarah Storey—born without a hand, thanks to an umbilical cord that cut off her circulation—as she won gold this year on her bike. Fans erupted as Jonathan Fox, who has cerebral palsy, won gold in the pool. Top British Para-athletes are so well-known by now that news stories dispense with descriptions of their disabilities or mention them only in passing. Prince William and Kate Middleton have been fixtures at the games. They aren’t stoically supporting the bravery of the handicapped, but cheering on their favored performers.
Back in August, London aptly used its Olympic opening and closing ceremonies to demonstrate how the English world—from Shakespeare to the Spice Girls—dominates global culture. That the Paralympics have so captured the public’s interest reveals another Western achievement. As the London press has noted, as recently as World War II, many of today’s Para-athletes wouldn’t have existed—not just as swimmers or tennis players, but as human beings. People with crippling birth defects or war wounds would have been left to die, partly because of the limits of medical science, but also because the world seemed to have no place for them. Today, “victims”—including Martine Wright, a sitting-volleyball player who lost her legs in London’s 7/7 transit bombings of 2005, and Joe Townsend, an Ironman triathlete who lost his legs fighting for Britain in Afghanistan—not only live, but excel.
Aging baby boomers might watch the Paralympics with interest. It really does matter what company makes your wheelchair and where and how. Just as medical engineering can make or break an athlete’s performance by allowing for faster turns, it will shape quality of life for millions of Westerners who find their physical capacities diminished with age.
Londoners’ rapt attention, then, is healthy and long overdue. Parents understandably teach their children not to point or stare at a person with an obvious physical disability. But that ingrained impulse means that many of us reflexively ignore not only the chair, but also the person in it. The Paralympics are an invitation to watch, ask, and learn. As people have asked questions, the press and the athletes have obliged with answers. How is it that a person who can’t walk can control a horse? How can a person propel herself in a pool using only her legs? With knowledge and familiarity come respect and admiration. Viewers watching women’s swimmers on TV in a London bar last Thursday were marveling not at a freak show, but at physical prowess.
Moreover, medical advancement requires great wealth, public and private. Here, too, the Paralympics are a better measure of the civilized West’s achievements than were the August Olympics. London’s Independent pointed out the disparity in advantage “between the disabled athletes of the First and Third Worlds whose wheelchairs, prosthetics, and other equipment as they paraded round the stadium were clearly of varying quality.” As the Financial Times concurred, “equipment-intensive sports such as cycling, rowing and wheelchair basketball [are] heavily dominated by wealthier nations.”
While Londoners can’t avoid the games even if they want to, Americans must sift through websites to find profiles of members of their home team, or dig deep into the sports pages to find win and loss tallies. Paralympians can be grateful that London possesses a free, inquisitive, and competitive press that isn’t ashamed to give people what they want: news of the world all around them.