In praise of the Paralympics… and Channel 4

I won’t deny that sitting down to watch the Paralympics is, at first, an uncomfortable experience… We are seeing a range of disability that in the normal run of public life are generally kept well out of the public gaze…

It’s odd seeing the Chinese backstroke swimmer holding on to a towel in her teeth… And it’s disconcerting when your seven year asks the blunt question ‘what’s wrong with this lot’ as a new set of un-decodable track event athletes ready themselves for the performance of their lives…

The truth is that sometimes it is just not obvious what their disability is until they start. You only realise that the British girl swimmer’s strength is all in her arms when they get to the end of the first length and her legs are almost useless for the kick turn.

The broadcasters have excelled themselves and in the process broken some of the awfully constraining language war over disability that however well intentioned has been constraining a free discourse in area since at least the mid 1980s.

Peter White talking with Eddie Mair on BBC radio the other day made a joke of the fact that he could not explain in plain language why in some event the person who seemed to finish third in some events, actually took the Gold medal without using that taboo word, handicapped.

Phew!

But in terms of broadcast output it is Channel Four who deserve the greatest plaudits. If you have not seen their irreverent after show fronted by Australian amputee stand up Adam Hills (no, I’d never heard of him or his disability before) The Last Leg, then just go watch it now…

In terms of presentation C4 did the brave thing and put disabled folk in a large number of the chief reporting roles, with Paralympian basketballer Ade Adepitan taking on the role of joint anchor.

But the smart move was to hire in Claire Balding from the BBC who in startlingly short order has built a confident relationship with Adepitan and in the process creating a new sum that’s infinitely greater than its parts.

The other thing worth noting is the relative performances of the nations taking part. Top of the current table is China, with Australia Ukraine and the UK jostling for the next positions. Ireland even makes it into the top ten.

The USA at a lowly (for them) sixth, has only two gold medals more than Ireland. What this says about that nation’s general attitude to disability or particular attitude to the Paralympics I am far from qualified to even venture a guess.

Yet, the achievements of Irish and British athletes must say something for the shared social values between the peoples of these islands.

Perhaps it is that it’s okay to have a disability? That it is more than okay to exceed your own expectations in spite of that disability.

Or perhaps more importantly from a wider societal point of view, that that you can exceed the often limited expectations that others hold of what may be your considerable higher abilities.

Be they your parents, friends, teachers or prospective employers.

To declare an interest C4 is a past funder of the major changes in Slugger’s current above and below the line design.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty