The last time I was in the same village as thousands of disabled people was on Easter Monday a couple of years ago. It was Lourdes in the South of France and there wasn’t much sport going on but, as I prepare to cover the Paralymic Games from London for BBC Radio Five Live, I suspect the two experiences will have something in common - and I don’t mean miracles.
In a world where we know disability still attracts at best ignorance and at worst, abuse, a blind girl I spoke to in the French town put it very simply. It’s the only place where she feels completely free from both. Lourdes, she said, is a place where her disability is of no consequence because there, it is commonplace. The village’s whole purpose is to welcome those usually deemed outside the norm. Yes, some go hoping for miracles, but the majority I spoke to seemed to have gone to tap in to the shared atmosphere of the place and just express themselves with like minded people. Oh and have enormous fun, too! Very important, that.
Ringing any bells? If the Olympics told us anything it was that when young, determined people come together to try to achieve their best, to entertain, and to show great character come what may, we are all the better for it. When those young people have already overcome great difficulty, the spectacle takes on an added dimension.
I’ve spent this week interviewing many of the athletes who’ll compete at the Paralympic Games and while their disability is of course a key part of their story, they’ve long got round it and are now simply athletes raring to go.
These athletes, just like the Olympians we’ve marvelled at already this Summer, remind us that ability and disability are relative. The people on the track will often be more able than those watching from the stands. If that thought doesn’t stop us underestimating disabled people, nothing will.
So when the Olympic Stadium comes to life again next Wednesday, prepare to meet some new stars as well as those Paralympians who’ve already grabbed our attention. There’s Oscar Pistorius (above), of course – “the fastest man on no legs” – who will make history by competing in both London 2012 Games. Swimmer Ellie Simmonds was the youngest British athlete at Beijing, where at the age of 13 she won gold in the 100m and 400m freestyle events in her classification.
She has achondroplasia, a disorder of bone growth which causes dwarfism. The schoolchildren who swamped her in Trafalgar Square for autographs when tickets first went on sale didn’t seem to notice. She’s a superstar as far as they’re concerned.
The Paralympics will be bursting with human stories and I can’t wait to tell them. Some will be about disability but, truthfully, I’m packing my bags for the Olympic Village to witness another feast of sport, talent, and plain old human grit. See you there.