Let the disabled join the freak show

Nick Walker, who has multiple sclerosis, argues against a Paralympic Games fenced off from the main event
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The Olympic Games are an exhibition of freaks, a celebration of extremes - extreme strength, extreme determination, extreme power, and extremely good genetic luck. Extremes are lonely places. From ability at one end to disability at the other.

I have been watching this week's Olympics in Atlanta with a mixture of awe and envy. I was never an athlete, but scars on my spinal cord and the base of my brain mean I can no longer run. I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis last year. Occasionally, my balance is so poor and my legs so weak that the only way I can get around is with a stick. The high jump? A moderate skip would be a personal best.

But I, have been told, I can take comfort. I can draw inspiration. The disabled have their place, or to be more precise, their time. Just as there are separate competitions for the over-40s, the under-19s and the Commonwealth, there is a "parallel" Olympic event for the disabled. From the middle of August, in the same village, on the same fields as the main shebang, more than 4,000 athletes from 120 countries are expected to take part in the 10-day Paralympic Games.

Disabled sport is racked with dilemmas. There is the difficulty of classifying disability. To create fair competition, it is thought best to separate competitors into categories - athletes with spinal damage, amputees, the visually impaired, those with cerebral palsy, those with learning disabilities, and "les autres" whose disability cannot be easily categorised. Then there is the question of whether to include able-bodied athletes and athletes with learning disabilities. Also, there is the problem of drugs.

The Sports Council expressed its concern a year ago about the scandal of "boosting", in which athletes with spinal injuries were said to force up their blood pressure and improve performance by deliberately injuring the damaged parts of their bodies.

These dilemmas are distracting. There is only one question to be addressed, and then the others, although not necessarily resolved, fall into perspective.

The separation of the Paralympics from the Olympics diminishes both events. It is a distinction that fails to recognise the nature of physical achievement, and by extension the nature of physical achievement.

When walking to the shops can demand vein-popping willpower and concentration, it becomes very clear that any physical achievement is defined not only by ability (or disability) but by what we ask of it. It is the same for athletic achievement. Walking To The Next Lamppost might not make it as an athletic sport (and I don't think, despite numerous personal triumphs, that I would make the British team), but why shouldn't there be a 400m wheelchair race? It is not a "disabled sport", it is simply a sport which allows the disabled to demonstrate athletic ability easily worthy of the Olympics. Surely the Olympics should focus on what marks out the athlete; remarkable strength, power or stamina?

Physical achievement is a lonely business. Whether it is swimming 100m faster than anyone else or overcoming pain and walking to the shops - with those legs, negotiating those stairs and that high kerb by the postbox - in only four minutes and 23 seconds. Now, that's a record. It may not be an Olympic record, it may not be an athlete achievement, but it does show that physical achievement is defined only by the parameters we set.

Ooh, so you can run really fast and jump in that itsy bitsy little sandpit after three hops. (Why three? Why not four? Let's see what happens to our triple jumpers in the quadruple jump.) I mean, how pointless. Call that a challenge? If you are 7ft tall, a career in high jumping is the easy way out. Losing your legs, your sight, your job: now, there's a challenge!

Disabled athletes are not a distinctive type of competitor requiring separate games. The events in which disabled athletes excel may be different, but their status as Olympian standard athletes has to be the same. What if the wheelchair race was won by an able-bodied athlete? Surely, that's why it's called competition. The disabled are not a distinct category like the over-40s. Losing a leg or being diagnosed with MS is not equivalent to being a Commonwealth citizen, or turning 40. Disability is not a status, it's a physical fact. Being a 7ft high jumper is not the same as being French.

To argue for integration on some "good-as-you ticket" misses the point. Two years ago, when Arthur Tunstall, the Australian vice-president of the Commonwealth Games Federation, used the word "embarrassing" to describe the inclusion of wheelchair racing, swimming and bowls in the 1994 Commonwealth Games, one newspaper took issue with Tunstall's choice of words, but not his principles. The disabled should be fenced off, it argued: "Sport, at the level of international competition, is a particular species of activity that is by definition abnormal."

Quite. Disability exposes the true nature of physical achievement, even at the level of Olympic success. At one point, the International Olympic Committee mooted the inclusion of up to nine full medal sports that would allow disabled athletes to compete in this year's Olympics. Plans were shelved because of "publicity and numbers".

The IOC should acknowledge the full range and true nature of athletic achievement and show the Games for the extraordinary, exhilarating international freak show that they are.

Comments