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.


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.

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  • Pete Baker

    It’s not just Claire Balding, who has been excellent in both Olympic and Paralympic coverage this summer, that is doubling up in the coverage.

    Any number of former ‘BBC’ presenters are there, Jonathan Edwards for example. Which makes me think its a production company thing.

    Unfortunately that’s meant the worst sports commentator of recent times, IMHO, has also been involved. Step forward the gratingly bombastic Rob Walker. Odious, utterly odious.

    Sample comment from one of the 100m track sprints last night, about a Polish competitor, I think – “His father’s a boxer, he’s a fighter!”.

    He’d clearly prepared that in advance…

    *shakes head*

    On the USA. Tellingly, the presenters have made a number of references to the US broadcasters, NBC, not providing live coverage of the Paralympics. I’m assuming that means not even the delayed ‘live’ coverage they used for the Olympics.

  • Greenflag

    Well done the UK for the coverage and it’s a boost for the human spirit everywhere to see people who a century ago would have been totally ignored and written off from participation in society now ‘reach ‘ for the stars as it were .

    One small point re the medals table and this applies to the main Olympics just finished as well but surely the medals table rankings should be based on total medals won as a percentage of total population in which case I think the Aussies would be ahead in the Paralymic games with 1.5 medals per million .Ireland would have 0.6 per million and Britain also about 0.6 . The USA would rate 0.1 medals per million with China at 0.025 approx . Just a thought !

  • Well, to use that cliche, this is a game-changer.

    You are right to highlight that Leader Board.

    The most advanced Technological Society on Earth at #6?

    The simple concept that Disability is something which can be addressed by Technology has broken through.

    Profoundly proud to be a British/Irish Engineer.

  • Pete Baker

    To add.

    I had heard of Adam Hills and his last leg. But I haven’t been overly impressed by what I’ve seen of the irreverent after show.

    And the coverage, whilst generally excellent, has been more partisan, in parts, than the Olympic coverage.

    Rob Walker’s not the only culprit there. But he doesn’t have the excuse of inexperience that the others have.

  • Pete Baker

    One more thing.

    Performance of the games, so far.

    Last night, Ellie Simmonds defending the 400m freestyle Paralympic swimming title she won in Beijing when she was 13 years old.

  • I thought I would find it “uncomfortable” viewing and had the same problem explaining things to a 9year old.
    At one point last night, I got a little emotional at the interview with the young English girl who finished fifth in the 100 metres.
    Just as I was leaving the room my son said “I hope this doesnt sound patronising but this is actually inspirational”… admission which gave me an excuse to stay in the room.
    I am not so sure about the presenters. As in the Olympics last month, the presenters wanted to ramp up the chauvinism but it was the athletes and former athletes who kept us focussed on achievements regardless of nationality.
    The stars of this show are the athletes who have just amazed me.

  • Mister_Joe


    I struggle with the rankings too and your suggestion does have merit. Not the total picture of talent or ability, of course, since poor countries can neither afford much training or to send a team to another country.
    I’m not a flag waver for any country; I just like to see individuals excel at their passion.

  • Zig70

    I love the swimming but the Olympic swimmers have left me convinced that aliens have landed. The paralympic swimmers are a better display of human nature with looks of happiness, fear, worry instead of previous 2wks with either stoney faced with headphones on or blubbering afterwards probably because the mothership is taking them home.

  • Pete Baker


    “The paralympic swimmers are a better display of human nature with looks of happiness, fear, worry instead of previous 2wks with either stoney faced with headphones on or blubbering afterwards probably because the mothership is taking them home.”

    You clearly haven’t been paying attention to the Paralympic swimming.

    Mostly happiness and headphones.

    But plenty of ‘blubbering’ afterwards. Understandably.

    Ellie Simmonds being a case in point. Not that she was the only one to succumb…

    Tonight, Rob Walker was at his usual low standard on David Weir’s victory in the 5000m.

    And Oscar Pistorius caused controversy by pointing out that the Brasilian athlete was 4 inches taller than he should be…

    Which he was, btw.

  • It seems likely that “technology” will become an issue following Pistorious’ outburst….he has apologised for the timing…..last night.
    Technology can only improve.
    But rather like Pharmaceuticals in mainstream Sport, there is bound to be a debate around Technology. What is allowed and what isnt allowed.
    The length of a stride is important in mainstream athletics.And body shape is different. Some people might have disproportionately long or short legs.
    The “blade runners” have a manufactured stride. Can they realistically be limited?

  • Mister_Joe

    This Pistorious story is now the lead on BBC World News. As FJH notes above, Pistorious, apologised but just for the timing of his remark. A spokesman for the IPC says that no rules were broken.

  • Pete Baker


    “Can they realistically be limited?”

    They already are in competition.


    “A spokesman for the IPC says that no rules were broken.”

    Well, yes. But Pistorius’ point is that the rules are not strict enough.

    Particularly in that they apparently allowed the Brazilian to increase the length of his blades by 4 inches when he switched to new blades a month ago.

  • They are certainly limited…….but not I would suggest realistically. Seemingly no rules were broken and it would be interesting to see how they come up with rules that limit the size of blades so that an athlete can be limited to the height he would have been before amputation of his legs.
    Arguable a man of 6feet 4 would have a longer stride pattern than a man of 5ft 11….would an athlete be wrong to become 6 4.
    While I recognise that there are categories for Disabled Athletes, it is somewhat different from the no restriction in mainstream athletics, where the simple message is to be faster, higher, stronger than anyone else.

    For example it was clear that Michael McKillop an excellent winner in the 800 metres in world record time (a time faster than Kelly Holmes won her Gold medal some years ago) is not fully able-bodied but he seemed much more able-bodied than other athletes in his race, their disability was more obvious.
    The essence of mainstream sport is a level playing field but frankly the ethos of the Paralympics is overcoming or at least dealing with disability on a personal level rather than being competitive with other folks who we can see on the starting block are not actually going to be competitive.
    There is a genuine question to be asked as to whether the emphasis on competition in the Paralympics enhances or weakens an “ethos”.
    Of course it might be argued that many mainstream Olympians…..the British ski jumper or the swimmer from Equatorial Guinea do not compete on equal terms. Or indeed that “European” marathon runners cannot compete with “East African” marathon runners because of physical attributes.

  • Mister_Joe


    What about a person who was born with no feet (Pistious I think) or someone who lost legs or partial legs as a child? There is no idea what height they would have grown to.

    I understand that, but couldn’t the Brazilian argue that he had been using artificial legs that were too short initially.

    Pistorious used to garner a large part of the spotlight and this sounds like a case of sour grapes, especially so since he was just off form.

  • Exacty.
    All sports are “categorised”….the Hammer Thrower will not be running the 1,500 metres and it is physique related.
    Pistorious used technology to compete with able-bodied athletes. There is no reason why other disabled athletes cannot use legal technology to compete with Pistorious.
    Obviously it makes no sense to have disabled categories with just two competitors but the range of disability within a category seems the biggest problem with the Paralympics.
    Im not entirely sure that the whole hoopla of Gold Silver Bronze sits easy with the ethos of overcoming or dealing with disability.

  • As a lawyer, I fought for disabled people on two fronts. One was of contesting discrmination cases in the employment tribunal. The other was of contesting, by way of appeal, a refusal to award DLA in the Social Security appeals tribunals.

    Now you would think that as a lawyer, I should have maintained a vision that many of these people, once given their initial help and their rights would be able to be good productive people. After all, that was the core theme of the Disability Discrimination Legislation.

    Not so. My experience actually hardened my already stereotypical view of disabled people. When I met these clients, they were just victims. I could only think of them as poor souls whose rights had to be fought for.

    I never watched the paralympics until now but I am in awe of these athletes. They are people who believe in themselves. They are not crushed by their limitations. You are unlikely to see an interviewee athlete suffering from low self – esteem.

    So thank you channel 4 for your excellent coverage. It has helped to change my view of disability.


  • andnowwhat

    I have tried post on this thread a dozen times. Firstly, I am a spinal c2,3/c3,4/c4,5 quad but one who also worked in spinal injury, ABI and amputees within the defunct Green Park Trust for over a couple of decades.

    I have also coached for the GutTmann games ( archery and bowls ) and been to the annual games at SMH I have also been involved in the use of equipment, adaptation and creation of minor devices


  • andnowwhat

    Me,we,they are neither to be pitied nor normal. Those of us who used to dream of flying dream of running or walking or moving in anyway. My,our’s,their’s biggest problem is pain, not immobility, we can work around that.

    Now, when you watch the games, you are seeing the smallest fraction of the competitor’s lives. Unlike an able bodied athlete, they are not working with what like has dealt them but against it but for every athlete, there is a thousand who struggles


  • andnowwhat

    From a man who may never feel a man again, to a parent who wi
    L never feel what it is like to hold their child again because they know longer have the sensitivity to feelroperly off at all.

    I just wanted to give a little perspective.

    As for channel 4, apart from the ads thing, it’s been great. An amputee as a host, one who is also a comedian, was a great move. The Spasticus programme was a great set up to show that people with disabilities have humour and take the piss out of the able bodied often.


  • andnowwhat

    The Come Dine with Paralympians was also great on showing the humour within people with disabilities(lee wil Be faking raging).

    Now, for the serious bit, how do people attack Frankie Boyle when Locog are sponsors of the games? Last Friday, a Tyrone woman who had cancer died. They same woman had her benefits withdrawn by the same company who sponsored these games! It’s insane.

  • Mister_Joe

    Perseverance works, andnowwhat. Congrats.

    Off topic, Rory won, now leads the Fedex. $10M purse looms. And Tiger has earned total of $100M.

  • Mark

    ” To show that people with disabilities have humour and take the piss out of the able bodied ” …… We know that from your posts andnowwhat lol … and can I just echo Joe’s sentiments about your great spirit ..

    Ok , no more fan mail ….

  • You could fairly describe the BBC’s coverage of the Olympics as excellent. C4’s coverage cannot reasonably described in the same terms. However I’m not going to slag it off-they haven’t made a mess of it as they did last year’s athletics. And yes the Last Leg guy is a real find. But it really says it all when you need to get away from the constant studio nattering by watching the live feeds. The Games themselves though have been a triumph. Well done to LOCOG and the IPC.

  • andnowwhat


    I’m maybe going off topic but there are massive issues about. Place in society and relationships. Young guys would worry that they may never shag and married guys worried that they could no longer shag. Due to the revue process, I would have had contact with ex patients for years after discharge. Issues of female fertility, for female patients, were well taken care off but for the guys, sexuality was all about masculinity, their identity.

    There was High profile case of one of my ex patients who took their life last year. Paralympians are no more typical of people with disabi
    Ities than those who competed a few weeks earlier are typical of the able bodied

  • Pete Baker

    Having given a less than comlimentary mention of Adam Hills, et al, on the Last Leg, earlier, I would like to review my opinion.

    On watching more of the show as its run continued I have changed my mind.

    I really enjoyed it, most of the time. It was still a bit hit and miss, but the overall presentation did win me over.

    I can only put my initial view down to teething problems with the first show[s].

    And the early appearance of Freddie Flintoff…

  • andnowwhat


    I would recommend watching the Come Dine With Me ( I know, I know but…) Paralympics special to see an insight of disability and Paralympians.

  • Pete Baker


    I’ve only changed my mind over The Last Leg. From not being overly impressed to enjoying it, mostly.

    I was already praising the excellent coverage of the Paralympics by Channel 4…

  • andnowwhat


    I wasn’t inferring that you were otherwise. Channel 4 did a great job in recognising that Paralympians have something the majority of Olympians do not, a story.

    What has really gripped me is the seeming shift in attitude to those with a disability by the Chinese. I think their success is a real testimony to how the games can really shift attitudes.

  • Pete Baker

    “I think their success is a real testimony to how the games can really shift attitudes.”

    Perhaps. I tend to attribute a lot of that success, as did the Channel 4 coverage, to the knock on effect of the Chinese investment in Beijing 2008…

  • Mick Fealty

    Great closing quote from Coe, “it has lifted the cloud of limitation…” For my money, that closing ceremony was superb and close to the best excuted (“Keep it simple stoopid…”)

    No change of mind for me… C4 took some big big risks and it paid off handsomely… As Musa said in Friday, it was a real participatory treat of their best early vintage..

    And Ireland ended the Games at 19th… Oh deep, deep joy…

  • Mick Fealty

    I’d take your point on Beijing Pete… the performance of Chinese athletes bear witness to that… But I think London has re-engineered the image of the games and disability generally…

  • Pete Baker

    “But I think London has re-engineered the image of the games and disability generally…”

    I agree entirely, Mick.

    That’s why I was correcting andnowwhat’s generic reference to “how the games can really shift attitudes.”

    London will have succeeded in truly shifting attitudes globally if the next hosting country’s broadcaster is unable, unlike this time, to point to a deserted media centre and contrast it to the media scrum at the Olympics.

    Perhaps An Post will even acknowledge the Paralymics existence next time…

  • andnowwhat


    Prior and during the Beijing Games much was rightly made of issues about the attitudes to disability in China. Actually, it’s an issue that permeates in much of Asia.

    The success of China answers the question that is all over the media at the moment, how will the games change attitudes. Quite a lot it would seem.

    Listening to the media, wheelchair rugby seems to have caught the breath of people. The ” death ball” thing has been all over the airwaves and it is so good to see people with disabilities shock, to an extent, the able bodied with the ability to get stuck in.

  • Pete Baker


    It’s “Murderball”.

    From 2005…

  • Pete Baker

    Oh, and I’d recommend it, too…

  • Pete Baker

    Btw, it doesn’t replace my choice of the performance of the games.

    But a special mention goes to Alex Zanardi.

    “I’m certainly very, very happy, but this moment also brings a little bit of sadness because this weekend is going to be the end of a great adventure I’ve been fortunate enough to live,” Zanardi said outside the boisterous sponsor party to celebrate his first win.

    While the party roared on in another room, he reflected on what it all would mean come Monday, when the games were over.

    “You know, when you are in your 20s, you always believe that the race, that the championship is the only thing that matters,” he said. “But then 20 years later, you say, ‘Ooohhh, I remember when I was there with my mechanics, with my engineer, talking about the car, going out for a pizza, going to the team and (fixing) my seat and (spending) time with them.

    “So you realize what really (matters) was the effort that you put in daily in order to build something special. Because when the championship arrives, you cannot expect to meet happiness that day, otherwise you don’t get there. It’s the process.”

  • andnowwhat

    Cheers Pete.

    I’d a young patient, injured playing rugby, who tried to seriously push it here. I don’t know how well it went

  • andnowwhat

    Now for the big issue Pete……blades

  • Pete Baker

    “Now for the big issue Pete……blades”

    You appear to be missing the significance of that particular controversy about the rules and regulations of participation in the Paralympics…

  • andnowwhat