C4 reveals the warm and witty side of our Paralympians

View From The Sofa: Inside Incredible Athletes, Channel 4

Robin Scott-Elliot
Monday 30 August 2010 00:00 BST

If you were recovering from a broken neck and contemplating a whole, and alarmingly different, new world, the arrival of Sir Jimmy Savile at your bedside might or might not act as a fillip. But perhaps it does help as a gentle reminder that you still have your marbles.

"He'd come and tell you a joke and fuck off," recalled Mandip Sehmi of his time at Stoke Mandeville after a car accident that left him paralysed from the waist down. "He's nuts, wandering around with his cigar and gold bracelets. Nuts."

Sehmi is a wheelchair rugby player and one of the featured athletes on the first of Channel 4's series of programmes that are intended to make household names of a string of Paralympians before the Games arrive in London in 2012. Yesterday marked two years until the Games open so there is plenty of airtime available to achieve the channel's laudable ambition. Their tales are compelling – the athletes have a back story above and beyond their able-bodied contemporaries and the (no doubt carefully chosen) seven who star in the series come across as articulate, thoughtful and personable, which again marks them apart from a host of sportsmen and women.

There was a directness to Inside Incredible Athletes. There was no skirting around what is, after all, the central issue. These are not normal people. "As a youngster I didn't consider my self disabled," said swimmer Liz Johnson. "I am disabled. There is no getting away from it. There are things I can't do that other people can. Bam."

Their achievements are not normal. Their competitive spirit is not normal. Their abilities are not normal. And, for a variety of reasons, they are physically different to most people. Johnson has cerebral palsy. Lee Pearson was born with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, which means his limbs are bent and twisted. Stefanie Reid lost a foot after being hit by a boat's propeller. Dave Clarke was born blind. Jonnie Peacock had his leg amputated. "How do you tell a five-year-old they are going to lose a leg?" said his mother. They are also all supreme athletes, as this beautifully shot film amply demonstrated.

It was warm and witty television; Pearson chiding his partner for accepting a free car wash from some Croats – "Gay Croatians, when did that happen?" – or watching his pack of pint-sized dogs taking a walk on his treadmill; Peacock's goggle-eyed enthusiasm when he pulled on his Team GB vest for the first time and found himself running next to Oscar Pistorius, the Blade Runner himself.

I interviewed Pistorius once. Within a couple of minutes he had eagerly rolled up his trousers to show where he ended and the prosthetic began. He also told a story of how his school "mates" had hidden his legs one night in their boarding house in South Africa and then set fire to his bedside locker before waking him up yelling "FIRE!" They had, he said, then collapsed in hysterics at his panicked reaction as he scrabbled around for his missing limbs. "The thing is," he said echoing Johnson's assertion, "I didn't mind because when you are a kid you just want to be treated like everyone else."

The desire to fit in never leaves most people, but some always stand out. Johnson was filmed swimming in a roof-top pool in a private members' club in east London, not far from the Olympic Park itself. An extravagantly dressed woman in a towering white wig stared at her as she walked past.

"You can't change reality," said Sehmi, a gangly young man who plays what is a pretty violent game – broken ribs are not uncommon. "Sport is everything. I love it."

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