Parafest: 'I feel like I'm superhuman now, not subhuman'
Robin Scott-Elliot pays a visit to the first Parafest, set up with the intention of building on London 2012 success
Monday 03 December 2012
Gary Rhys's left leg is new. It's well polished, a glistening black. "Before London I never wore shorts," he says looking down at his leg. "I used to feel self-conscious. Not any more, I'm proud of it. We're not sub-humans any more, we're super humans."
Rhys has just taken a cycling fitness test, supervised by Gareth Sheppard, performance manager of British cycling's successful Paralympic team, and is considering what to do next. There is no shortage of choice on offer around two adjoining sports halls. In one corner, Ben Quilter, a judo bronze medallist in London, is demonstrating how to hurl an opponent to the floor to an appreciative audience of schoolchildren. Some are disabled, some are non-disabled.
This is the first Parafest, an idea formed in the build-up to London and put into practice some two months later with a degree of anxiety. It is part-fun day, part-talent spot, part-banging the drum and mostly about momentum, the momentum of those two weeks in late summer when the Paralympics demanded the nation's attention, and held it. But sporting attention wonders easily in this country – there is plenty to be distracted by – and the challenge to those who run Paralympic sport is to make sure a moment in late summer does not prove a high-water mark.
In the second sports hall, Natasha Baker, double dressage gold winner in London, watches others sit nervously on top of a horse, a simulator rather than the real thing – the sprung wooden floor is no place for hooves. Everything else is here, every Paralympic summer sport has its own corner of this Surrey sports hall. There are rowing machines, a racing chair of the sort David Weir propelled to his four gold medals attracts plenty of interest, more chairs shimmy and dart around another part of the hall where wheelchair basketball has staked its turf, and by the door Alan Sheriff, another Paralympian, lets out a piratesque growl as he spears a young man in a fencing demonstration.
"People are not jumping out of the swimming pool when I get in any more," continues Rhys. "It is what London has done for the psyche. We feel like we are part of the mainstream, that's what 2012 has done. Having one leg has become cool!"
This was a suck-it-and-see event, a first step into the realities of a post-London world. What did the Paralympics achieve above and beyond the east end of London? Can it begin a real change in perceptions? And most importantly can it last? Rhys says yes. As does Mikey Hughes, a blind 36-year-old from Glasgow who had flown for the day down to take part. "London has inspired me," he says. "Its impact will be massive."
"Today shows it will not be a high-water mark," insists Tim Hollingsworth, chief executive of the British Paralympic Association. "It's about momentum, not legacy. Legacy is the word you use when you have got somewhere and you want to sustain it. We are not there yet.
"Unquestionably London has changed perceptions. But it must be qualified by what remains to be done. Anyone from the Paralympic community or the broader disable community who assumes that the power of London means that all the challenges, problems of accessibility have gone is wrong. But equally you can say we have an opportunity to do something about that because of London. It's not that it changed everything but it is the single biggest opportunity that we have been provided with to instigate change. We have to find ways to use sport."
Outside sending a team to the Games, putting on an event such as this is the most significant outlay the BPA has made. After Beijing talent-spotting events were staged around the country – ones that discovered Jonnie Peacock, Hannah Cockcroft and Mark Colbourne, all gold winners in London – but this is a different scale all together. Over two days some 800 people are expected at the Surrey Sports Park on the edge of Guildford. It is planned to lead to similar events in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as another in England, and from them it is hoped athletes will be discovered to compete in Rio in 2016.
There is a wider purpose, too. Sports participation among disabled people is twice as poor as among non-disabled – one in six to one in three. This is supposed to help show there is a way to become active. Access remains a problem.
"Days like today are really important to give that awareness of the presence of disability sports," says Quilter. "This really can make a difference to somebody discovering a sport that they have never done before. If two people go away from here to do the sport it is a success."
Yesterday Tanni Grey-Thompson was in the east end of London to publicise a project by Sport England to help fund better facilities for disabled sports people. Grey-Thompson is no longer the lonely figure she once was – the only Paralympian widely known to the public. Three of the multi-decorated dozen who make up the shortlist for the BBC's Sport Personality of the Year are Paralympians – Sarah Storey, Weir and Ellie Simmonds. A dozen years ago Grey-Thompson was unable to get on to the BBC's stage after finishing third as there was no ramp fitted. London has accelerated the gradual change since the start of the century, but Grey-Thompson has already voiced concerns that with the Paralympics out of sight, disability will slip out of people's minds again.
"There is a big journey still to come and there is lots of evidence how many wider areas of society are not responding to disability issues in the way they should," says Hollingsworth.
Yesterday though was about putting into practice a means of keeping the momentum Hollingsworth speaks about going, the power of the positives. "We see it as part of our responsibilities to open the door," he says.
Upstairs from the sports hall a queue, some disabled, some non-disabled, formed as Baker signed autographs, her two chunky gold medals around her neck. "London has changed my life," she says. "People look at disabled people in a different way. The perception has changed from a negative one to a positive one because of London."
Facts in figures
13: Number of sports GB won medals in at the 2012 Games
4,302: Athletes from 164 National Paralympic Committees participated
120: Medals won by GB at this year's Paralympics
3: The position GB finished, the target was second place
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