We’ve just spent the past two weeks more or less glued to the television for the Paralympic Games. Unlike the Olympics, we actually weren’t able to get tickets—we let it go too long, which was pretty foolish on our part. But that alone tells you what a success these games have been—for the past week, you couldn’t find a ticket to the 90,000-seat Athletics center for anything. In fact, for the past two weeks, you couldn’t find a ticket to anything at all. So this evening, waiting for the Closing Ceremonies, is something of a comedown. Never again, at least in my lifetime, will London be so transformed in this way. There will be other celebrations, of course, but these really were special. We all feel better about ourselves, and for good reason.
The events themselves were a treat, and we learned so much. How do you swim the breaststroke with no arms, for example? Well, with difficulty, but not only can it be done, it can be done fast. How can you run so fast on those blade things? How on earth do you play anything at all if you’re blind? That was true for so many of these events. We were astonished, literally, at what some of these athletes had to do to even perform in an event. There are different classifications, depending on the impairment, and where it comes from (birth or accident), and there was a whole range of athleticism on display—some entrants could barely move, some have only a mild impairment, but it’s a sufficient enough impairment to prevent athletes from competing in regular events—such as the Olympics itself (although I know of at least two who have, runner Oscar Pistorius, and swimmer Natalie du Toit, both South Africans, and I think there may be more).
And this seemed a much more personal event as well. It’s competitive of course, and in many cases just as competitive as the regular Olympics. A Gold Medal here means just as much. But there’s a nicer spirit, I think, or at least it looked that way. The post-event congratulations among the runners and swimmers, for example, looked genuine and well meant. Interviews with athletes always resulted in talking about whether the event had just produced a Personal Best—in many cases, this seemed to be the important thing, irrespective of whether a medal was won. By definition, many of these people had worked harder to get here than most of the athletes in the Olympics—how could you not smile? There were frequent lumps in the throat over the past two weeks. Everyone competing here has a backstory that’s usually pretty complex, and often involving more than a little pathos. In all, athletes from 74 countries won medals, pretty cool when you think about it. China was first in the medal count, of course, but Britain is not just an Olympic power, it turns out, it’s a Paralympic power as well, ending up third in the Gold medal Count, and second overall.
Everyone has their high points, and mine are probably pretty widely shared—swimmer Ellie Simmonds (pictured in the stamp above), now officially Britain’s sweetheart, and who has just finished her second Paralympics at age 17; the women’s 400 meter medley, which is as close a swimming race as I’ve ever seen among the first four teams; Oscar Pistorius salvaging himself after his unfortunate outburst by a magnificent 400 meters on the last night of the athletics competition; Goalball, which is for blind athletes, or athletes with limited vision, where the ball is filed with ball bearings so the players know where it is from sound alone (the athletes wear blindfolds, and the crowd is VERY quiet in these matches); and Ireland’s David Smith, who is like really, really fast, and only has 10% normal vision. “How do you stay within the lines?” “Well, I can usually tell, especially if it’s been raining.” And particularly Hannah Cockroft, who, if she ever decides to give up wheelchair racing, has an outstanding career ahead of her as a stand-up—or sitting-down, to be more accurate—comedienne.
In fact, I think the Channel 4 ad campaign, called The Superhumans, had it just right. I have to say that the Channel 4 coverage was pretty good throughout, even with the commercials—they handled those pretty well. Here’s the ad:
And London, as in the Olympics, was splendid. Volunteers everywhere, and tons of visitors again, this time with family members in wheelchairs in tow. London did a good traffic management job here, with elevators working everywhere at the tube stations—I didn’t hear of a single breakdown problem anywhere while this was going on, and this was everyone’s big fear beforehand. And the locals were great—London is not normally known for its generosity of spirit, but the past couple of weeks, in both events, has probably changed that perception. Is this a great city or what? The volunteers, as was the case with the Olympics, made the whole thing work. And tv ratings were through the roof.
And, hey, look—a Steampunk closing ceremony! Perfect. Especially since, as Mrs W pointed out, a whole lot of these athletes have a fair amount of metal in them already, or have to ride around in it. They’re people who are all damaged, in some way, but they have made it work. Steampunk is as much about the relationship between humans and their machines as it is about anything else, and if there was ever a group of people aware of their bodies and their world, and the often ambiguous relationship humanity has with machines, it’s this group. Inspired. Coldplay is doing their usual thing, but it seems to be going over well, and I can’t wait for the Paraorchestra—composed entirely of musicians with disabilities—to show up.
Ah, they just did, all 17 of them, and they sound good, playing along with Coldplay. I have to say that Coldplay has had a huge involvement in these ceremonies—good for them. Once again, a very visual ceremony, almost like a circus, which kind of leaves all those with limited vision a bit in the dark, I suppose, but it’s loud too, so not all the senses are being ignored. Especially since Rihanna just showed up, and Jay-Z, someone whom I’m probably supposed to know who he is, will be along shortly.
But we’ve just had the handover to the Mayor of Rio, and now there’s a whole bunch of wheelchair dancing on the stage to some lively Brazilian music—definitely not Coldplay, that’s for sure—and it’s a treat. Followed by Sebastian Coe’s closing remarks, which were perfect, followed by a huge round of applause for the volunteers, again. Well deserved.
And, again, the fact that these games are ending is depressing a whole lot of people—not just in the wufnik household, but pretty much everyone we know. It’s been a wonderful shared experience. Will it make me less cynical? Probably not. Has it been a wonderfully uplifting experience? Absolutely. I gave up my seat to an older woman with a crutch the other day, but I probably would have done that anyway. But I got to feel virtuous about it.
I work for a French bank, and on Friday they did a nice thing—we had about a dozen French Paralympic athletes come around. So to welcome them a bunch of us went and stood outside waving French flags. And of course as the cars were going by, a whole bunch of people honked, including trucks. Only in London would car drivers honk at a group of people waving French flags. Neat.