Robin Scott-Elliot: Jiang's success as remarkable as an honest man in Hollywood
Monday 15 September 2008
If you have no arms it would take a particularly warped or malicious (ie normal) PE teacher to suggest swimming might offer a watery path towards fulfilment. Whoever it was who first pointed Fuying Jiang towards the pool, they can never have expected it to end like this.
Last week Jiang won butterfly gold and backstroke bronze at the Paralympics (BBC2). With no arms. At the start she crouches in the water and grips a towel between her teeth; at the finish she butts her head against the end to stop the clock; in between she swims like a dolphin.
To watch her is extraordinary, but in the Water Cube over the last week she did not stand out, let alone across the rest of the Games. There are thousands of these athletes, and while they see themselves only as athletes – "It's not about disability, it's about performance," summed up Eddie Butler – it is impossible for the viewer to divorce themselves from the wider picture. These are achievements greater than the sum of their parts.
It is not a simple event to cover, with its complicated list of categories, but the BBC do it with expert enthusiasm, packaging up a daily hour that covers the action as well as bringing plenty of colour and characters. It is engaging and often surprising viewing, not least when Eric Bristow's first cousin popped up to win a cycling gold.
Britain's success is astonishing – more golds than France have medals, the US trailing in our wake. Why are we so good? Does it say something positive about our attitude to disability? Who knows, but China lead the medals table and their treatment of the disabled attracted plenty of criticism ahead of the Games.
Five's take on disability has recently been channelled through the Extraordinary People series. Last week it told the story of Aditya Dev, who prefers to be known as Romeo. As well as being a body builder and a dancer, Romeo is a primordial dwarf, a man so small that he found himself dwarfed by a dwarf called Wee Man (who says they don't do irony in America?).
Nineteen-year-old Romeo left his native Punjab to try and make it in Hollywood. Being only 2ft 9in, his parents went with him. "My heart tells me everyone in America is honest," said his father, overlooking the fact that finding an honest man in Hollywood is as likely as Sarah Palin delivering the Darwin Memorial Lecture at the Satanists to Save the Planet convention.
Romeo didn't make it in the States – "He has the unfortunate affliction of being a very small person," pointed out an agent, helpfully – but before he returned home there was a trip to Gold's Gym in LA, the alma mater of the governor of California. As he strutted his stuff, a fellow bodybuilder looked on. "You look at someone like that," she said, "with a sense of confidence, this air about him and you admire him. I don't see any disability. I just see an amazing person."
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