Two British athletes broke world records on Day One of the Paralympics yesterday, heralding the prospect that the Games will match, or even exceed, the triumph of the London Olympics. The opening ceremony offered a good augury of that in its comparable sense of scale, power of imagination and breathtaking can-do technical ability – illustrated by a British Army war veteran, who was a double amputee, zooming down into the stadium from a 350ft high zip-wire.
Some eight million people watched the spectacle on television, far more than tuned in to previous Paralympics openings, justifying Channel 4's decision to involve its most high-profile presenter, Jon Snow, in the event. Some grumbled about its advertising breaks, but the commercial broadcaster has to live in the real world, particularly after recruiting the authoritative sports specialist, Clare Balding, from the BBC and spending £500,000 on a talent-search for new, expert disabled presenters.
There was, too, an admirable effort not to sentimentalise disability. Activists had warned in advance against describing the athletes as brave or courageous. That is not, of course, to minimise the scale of individual athletes' achievements. But the ceremony set them in context, as with the story of Martine Wright, who was horribly injured in the 7/7 bombings and whose fight back to fitness won her a place in the sitting volleyball team. Such stories inspire and, as the Olympics showed, the public have an appetite for inspiration in these hard times. That is clear from the impressive ticket sales. There was a sense, too, in which the Olympics whetted the appetite for more. We want, as Sebastian Coe said at the opening ceremony, to be excited, dazzled and moved.
To say that is not to be blind to the disparity between the provision for Olympic and Paralympic athletes – nor between the disabled athletes of the First and Third Worlds whose wheelchairs, prosthetics and other equipment as they paraded round the stadium were clearly of varying quality – a fact the Games authorities should address. Nor should the Paralympics be allowed to obscure the reality of sharp disparities in this country between the best and the worst provision for ordinary disabled people.
But what the ceremony so spectacularly achieved, from the outset with the uplifting words of the wheelchair-bound physicist Stephen Hawking, was to drive home that the Paralympics are not about disability so much as ability. The Games, he said, are about transforming our perception of the world and the people in it. There is no such thing as a standard human being, rather a shared human spirit of creativity which takes many forms.
Part of that creativity is anger at injustice, which is why it was fitting that the opening celebration concluded with the protest song "Spasticus Autisticus", written by Ian Dury, who was crippled with polio as a child. He wrote it in 1981, outraged by the UN International Year of the Disabled which he condemned as a patronising concept. That anger is still alive; many in the British team hid inside their clothing the lanyards bearing the name of one of the Games' sponsors, Atos, which has the task of vetting benefits recipients.
David Cameron, who has said the Games "will change attitudes to disability and have a positive impact on society", might do well to consider what part his Government's policies might have in maintaining negative social attitudes at a time and in a country where half of all disabled people live below the poverty line. In the end, we will be judged not by how loudly we cheer extraordinary Paralympians, but by how well, as a society, we treat ordinary people with disabilities.
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