Michael Calvin: Emotions in free flow at the watershed Games

The Calvin Report: On a grey day when families rather than corporate grazers packed the stands, the cyclist Jody Cundy summed up the Paralympic spirit by finding reward after his previous disappointment

Redemption is one of the recurring themes of world-class sport. It cleanses the soul, enables an athlete to be measured by something less tangible, but ultimately more significant, than a mere medal. Jody Cundy savoured its release yesterday afternoon, when he revealed the essence of his character.

The bronze the cyclist won in the individual C4 pursuit may lack the lustre of his five Paralympic gold medals, accumulated over 16 years in swimming and track cycling, but it represents a triumph of will that signals the authenticity of his instincts, as an elite competitor. The tears of the previous day's disqualification had dried, but injustice burned at the back of his throat. His anger, at being denied the opportunity to underline his dominance in the 1km time trial by the intransigence of officialdom, was channelled positively.

His performance, in overhauling Diego Duenas Gomez within 1,250 metres of a 4,000m race, brought to mind a favourite homily of Lou Holtz, the legendary American Football coach: "Life is 10 per cent what happens to you, and 90 per cent how you respond to it".

That's not a reference to the amputation of Cundy's right foot, at the age of three. His was the courageous gamble of a champion. His calculation, that he would pass his Colombian rival before his body succumbed to the strain of a sustained sprint, proved correct. Just.

"That last lap was one of the most painful I have done, but also one of the easiest," he said. "I was on my last legs, but I wanted to inspire, to show the world exactly what is possible. Four years of my life has been dedicated to performing on this stage. "

And what a stage.

Close your eyes, as Cundy rode, and you were back with Hoy, Kenny, Pendleton and Trott, the boys and girls of summer. The noise rolled around the Velodrome, Stratford's most evocative venue. It made the ears ring and the heart sing. It was the sound of unconditional acceptance.

These are watershed Games. The size, and nature, of the audience is unprecedented. The numbers – Athens pre-sold 1,000 tickets, Beijing 5,000 and London 2.3 million – are uniquely eloquent, yet tell a fraction of the story. The Paralympic legacy has little to do with facilities. This is about flesh and blood, hearts and minds, rather than bricks and mortar.

Families, with young children, flocked to the Olympic Park on a grey, sultry day. Corporate grazers were notable by their absence. The indifference of sports tourism was replaced by the innocence of the uninitiated. Life lessons were imparted in a manner unthinkable, even a decade ago.

A new generation was given a fresh perspective. See the person, not the chair. Recognise the power of someone's ability, rather than the limitations of their disability. Celebrate, rather than console. Empathise, rather than sympathise.

It was unsurprising, then, that the crowds had such generosity of spirit. The two-lap standing ovation, sustained while Hussein Omar Hassan completed his 1500m race in more than 11 minutes, will be a signature moment of these Games. It was an unforgettable gesture of respect from 80,000 strangers, consumed by the poignancy of the moment.

Hassan, who has no right arm, was a mysterious figure who trudged distractedly rather than ran. He did not deviate from his assigned lane, and barely registered his impact. He finished more than seven minutes behind the winner, as an unlikely hero.

It emerged that his status, as Djibouti's sole competitor in London, prompted him to run through the pain of an Achilles injury. "It was very sore, very sore," he said in broken English to officials, who needlessly came to his aid. "I do not stop. I want to finish."

Was it a world-class performance? Of course not. Did it have enduring value, broader significance? Indisputably. Sport, the platform for cheats and charlatans, finds its substance in surprising places, different ways.

The Paralympics are sport, through the looking glass. Participants have survived the sort of traumas which disturb the sleep of more fortunate citizens. Archers without arms, cyclists without legs and footballers without sight are not something out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. They are role models who place the political pretensions of the Big Society into proper perspective.

It is too trite to speak of counting medals, rather than limbs. The Paralympics are a wonderful experience, a stellar event, but they require the legitimacy of debate and challenge.

Compromise, in the form of politically correct reluctance to address the issues of a movement that has reached a critical stage of its development, is a cop-out. Too many events have too few competitors. The glut of world records signals the difficulty of trying to homogenise disability, for the convenience of sporting convention.

This is not about pitying or patronising athletes who understand the commitment which underpins a culture of athletic achievement. This isn't a school sports day, where Little Johnnie is indulged, to protect his self-esteem.

Paralympians deserve to be given the privilege of unconditional scrutiny. Criticism is, in itself, a perverse form of respect. Praise, where merited, will be earned, rather than donated. Richard Whitehead, for one, would have it no other way.

Whitehead, the marathon world record holder, pushed the boundaries of human endeavour a little further yesterday afternoon by setting a new world record over 200m. He dedicated his win to the memory of Simon Mellowes, a cancer victim who was his friend and inspiration. "I wanted to show that Olympic and Paralympic athletes are on the same platform now,' he said. "I am living proof, that with enough desire and determination, any obstacle can be overcome."

Sarah Storey came close to making Britain's gold-medal winning track cycling pursuit team in the Olympics. Like Cundy, Storey's 20-year journey, from swimming to cycling, reflects that of the movement she represents. Like Cundy, she emerged to the traditional forest of flags and habitual howl of hope at the Velodrome. She generated the same primal scream of recognition when she crossed the line, to win her second gold of the Games.

Her first thought was for her husband, who had won his gold medal by partnering Neil Fachie earlier in the day, but the crowd were participants, rather than observers. "I have a family of 8,000 people," she said. "This is truly amazing."

Cundy looked on and began to warm up on a stationary bike as they played She's So Lovely in her honour. He had a class act to follow, and a bitter memory to soften. He succeeded, spectacularly.

"I wasn't sure about staying on for Rio, but I have to put myself through another four years of punishment," he said. "I'll suffer, especially as I get older, but I have unfinished business. There's nothing like that feeling of being on the podium."

It was only when he mentioned writing the names of his family on his prosthetic limb, as a form of gratitude, that I noticed the nature his impairment. It was a supreme irrelevance.