The Paralympic games have seized this nation, and indeed many parts of the world, with an intensity which feels to me like a step up from London 2012. Certainly the organisers at Rio, perhaps learning from the lack of seats sold at the high prices at the start of the Olympic Games in August, have dramatically lowered the price of tickets and we are seeing many Paralympic venues full or mainly full for the exciting games which are now drawing to a close.
I don’t know if you have been watching much of the Paralympics, but Emma and I have been following it quite closely, and there are a number of ways in which I think the activities of the last ten days in Rio speak to us not only about the nature of disability but also about the nature of teamwork, community, and resilience.
I have to admit that Emma and I were both in tears during part of the Paralympic opening ceremony. If you didn’t see it, then I heartily recommend finding some clips online. It began with an extraordinary moment where a wheelchair user shot down a steep slope rather like a ski jump and then flew, in the wheelchair, through an Olympic hoop to land on a crash mat. The ceremony then went on in a series of awe-inspiring and in some cases deeply moving moments. Amongst the most moving was the point during the torch relay where Brazilian four-time Paralympian Marcia Malsar, who I believe suffers from cerebral palsy, fell over whilst carrying the Olympic torch. As she fell to the floor several stewards rushed out to help her to her feet, accompanied by a standing ovation from the entire stadium. Once upright she slowly continued to walk to the end of her relay section, leaning on her walking stick and holding the torch aloft.
I know from first-hand experience how very easy to is to fall over. I fall fairly regularly now, usually when my left leg locks at the knee and the ankle, and these days I am fairly covered in bruises from where bits of me hit the wall or the floor. I know from personal experience what it is like to be picked up off the floor by someone, often a complete stranger, and I know how grateful I am when, having picked me up, people recognise that I still want to carry on with what I was doing, and get to the place where I am going, rather than being wrapped in cotton wool or hurried home.
What we saw in the stadium at that opening ceremony was, it seems to me, a perfect example of the genuine frailty and vulnerability that disability often brings in its wake. Becoming disabled changes your life in profound and multiple ways, and there is no denying that. What, however, we also saw in Malsar’s eyes, and in her determined walk to the end of her relay length having fallen over with the entire world watching live, and finally what we saw in the low-key, thoughtful and non-patronising way in which the stewards assisted her, was disability being treated with dignity.
Dignity is the word that I think has summed up these Paralympic games. The disabled, amongst which I now number myself, are not incomplete able-bodied people. We don’t have half or three quarters of a life, where other people enjoy a complete one. We may well move, work, and navigate our way through life using a set of different tactics than the majority of the population, but we are not incomplete. Whether a disabled person has carried that disability from birth, whether they have become disabled through the acquisition of a disease, which has been my experience, or if the disability has come through injury or accident, the right to dignity, and equality of treatment, is the same. I have been so humbled by the example of the Paralympians. We have seen men and women of exceptional skill, people of speed, strength, nimbleness, subtlety and endurance, just like the Olympians who came before them in August. And just like the Olympians, they are being celebrated for who they are, not for the particular configuration of their body or mind.
I reckon I’m still finding myself crying fairly regularly as I watch these Paralympic games. Some of that is because to be honest I’m finding it really quite close to home this time around, but most of it I think is simply because for the most part what we are watching are brave and resilient human beings absolutely excelling in what they have chosen to do, and being rewarded not just by medals but with respect and dignity. I hope that the world is watching, and I hope that the world is learning.
Canon Tom Clammer is Precentor of Salisbury Cathedral, and suffers from Multiple Sclerosis.