Kevin Garside: This Paralympics' great achievement is the end of pity
Here, it was all on the outcome, not the hardships of the participants
Hands up who took Beware Of Pity, a novel by Stefan Zweig, to the Costas in their hand luggage. What, no one? You wouldn't find it on the two-for-one shelf at W H Smith, that's for sure. I'm a sucker for the 19th-century period piece. This beauty was written between the wars but owes much to the romantic tradition. According to the front cover of my edition, actor Colin Firth was "riveted by it". As was Roy Hodgson, who likes to busy himself on his quiet days with a hefty chunk of literature. After a week in the company of JT and the boys it might be considered intellectual rehab. It was the England manager's recommendation, via a piece I had read about him, that led me to it via Amazon.
What, you are wondering, has all this to do with the price of eggs? Among other things, it saved me from the despair of rain on a Majorcan beach. It also connected with the rousing events occurring at the Paralympic Games. The book charts with arresting sensitivity the consequences of society's attitudes towards those with physical impairments, which are all too often patronising and condescending, born out of an understandable yet misplaced reflex towards sympathy and pity.
Edith, the teenage daughter of a wealthy and doting father, once a vibrant, energetic soul, is struck down with paralysis. All manner of quackery is engaged to help restore the use of her legs, which she bears with varying degrees of grace, fortitude, impatience and frustration. The biggest torment to her is not so much her condition but the sentimental reaction to it of others, particularly the dashing Lieutenant Anton Hofmiller. Our knight in shining armour cannot do right for doing wrong.
Our sympathy lies with him as much as her because his intentions are instinctively in tune with our own when confronted by something we do not understand. And so our first encounter with the London 2012 Paralympics evinced an emotional reaction to the hardships and barriers overcome by individuals denied the physical attributes of the majority. Watching Ellie Simmonds in the pool, David Weir in his wheelchair, Natasha Baker on horseback, the initial reaction was amazement at how they do what they do given the limitations imposed by nature or fate.
And then something wondrous happens. One of the more powerful measures of this development could be observed in my house last Thursday when Celebrity Big Brother was ditched without a scene in favour of the final of the T44 100m. Yes, Jonny, aged 13, a devotee of the Big Brother House, accepted without complaint the imperative to switch from Channel Five to Four to witness the showdown between Jonnie Peacock and Oscar Pistorius.
The attraction was no longer to gaze in awe at the odd sight of men in blades ripping up the track. We had moved beyond the wonder of that. The race was the issue. In this the Paralympics has broken new, important ground. Instead of marvelling at the courage of men and women from all parts contesting sporting events without arms or legs, or both, the issue now was simply who might win. It was all on the outcome not the personal histories and hardships of the participants. This represents a huge shift. The audience was engaging with the athletes as people, not as victims.
What might poor Edith have achieved had the Paralympics been available to her? Young Hofmiller would have got short shrift. Either that or he would have followed the course of our journey and adapted. The adjustment has to come from us, not those who are busy getting on with their lives the best they can in obviously difficult circumstances.
Of course Alex Zanardi would trade his incredible triumph in the H4 handcycling for the return of the legs he lost 11 years ago on a motor-racing circuit in Germany. Ahmed Kelly would rather he had not been dumped in an Iraqi orphanage without arms or legs. Like most women, Ms Simmonds would probably choose the appearance, if not the intellect, of Kim Kardashian over her own, but that is not how the world turns. Glory comes to us via our own agency, playing the cards we are dealt.
What Simmonds demonstrated in the pool is not only an acceptance of the condition with which she was born, a dwarf, but a determination not to be held back by the perceptions of others. And in doing so she and her fellow Paralympians have effected a huge change in the way those blessed with regulation appearance see others. That is as equals, as capable, as worthy, as champions, as heroes, and, importantly, as villains too.
The surest sign that change was afoot was the protest made by Pistorius after losing out to Brazilian Alan Oliveira in the T43/44 200m final that he was expected to win. It was beautifully graceless. A complaint about the length of the blades that propelled Oliveira to the gold. We were down to the nitty gritty of raw emotion and disappointment, an athlete dealing not with disability but defeat. That was the biggest victory of all and marked the end of pity.
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