I was scared about sounding patronising during the Paralympics, now I can’t wait
I’m a sports nut. Whatever the sport, I can pretty much learn to get it, and fast. In four years living stateside and working for ESPN I found my like of American sports blossom from a flirtation to a serious loving relationship. I think many sports fans live for the action, whatever it is. So when I was approached about the Paralympics on Channel 4 this summer, I wasn’t apprehensive about learning about new sports and different genres, but I was, I admit, very worried about getting the ‘tone’ right.
As a broadcaster my biggest fear is that we patronise during the forthcoming Paralympics. A little too much use of the word ‘bravery’ and ‘adversity’ and we are in danger of forgetting that this is actually about sport. It’s competitive. Sometimes it’s brutal too. These are athletes who’ve trained as hard as the elite who’ll attend the Olympics before them – these people are all athletes despite their different shapes, sizes and abilities.
Our coverage of the Paralympics this summer is first and foremost about sport and winning medals. Our Paralympians did us proud in Beijing and we know they’ll be well supported. I hope we blow the rest of the competition away and know how hard our Paralympians are working on their form and fitness to make sure they don’t disappoint. There are other agendas for those of us lucky to have already been immersed in the world of Paralympic sport.
Channel 4 has a target to make disability a bigger talking point. They hope that people with disabilities are not only inspired, but find a voice through our coverage. They want a fundamental change in attitude toward disabilities across the board. It’s a hugely ambitious brief, but their enthusiasm for it has drawn me in hook, line and sinker.
My slightly over PC, over cautious and bashful approach to disability has changed in my six months at Channel 4. I used to be embarrassed about asking what was what. Despite being naturally curious as a journalist, I was never sure how to approach a disabled person with a question on their condition. Not asking is like ignoring the elephant in the room. “What is your disability? How did you get it? How do you swim/run/compete with that?” They’re not hard questions to ask actually.
One of my co-workers told me children deal with disabilities better then adults because they’re naturally curious, and ask these questions on a say-as-you-see basis that’s refreshing, inquisitive and sometimes downright blunt. My co-host Arthur Williams says he prefers to be asked why he is in a wheelchair – he says it’s seems weird if people don’t. Arthur is by no means defined by his wheelchair, but he does sit in it. I hope that we as a network we can make discussing disability a less terrifying topic in a world where the overbearing pressure of political correctness has made us so desperate not to offend, we don’t know what we can say anymore. I’ve gone from dreading the games to really looking forward to them.
My best case scenario this summer was that the Olympics would be a roaring success and off the back of that, the Paralympics would benefit. Not in my wildest dreams did I or anyone hope for what we think we are heading towards. It looks at the moment like we are heading for a ‘SOLD OUT’ Paralympics which would be a games first – and our Union Jacks that have been frantically waved all summer, first for the Jubilee, then for the Olympics are due for a third and final hurrah this year. We’ve even learnt as a nation to cry more this summer. How weird and wonderful it’s been. The nation’s enthusiasm has blown me away – and I hope we can deliver what expectation demands! All I want is for other people to get the honesty and tenacity of Paralympic sport and fall a little bit in love with it like I did.
Paralympics and Paralympians didn’t really feature much on my radar (with the exception of the achievements of Tanni Grey-Thompson) until our athletes grabbed medals and started making mainstream copy in Sydney, Greece and Beijing. As a self-confessed lover of all sports I am surprised how long it took me to get hooked in, because now I know Paralympic sport, I think it’s grittiness is competition at it’s imperfect best – complex maybe, but it’s compelling, and it’s also sometimes downright dirty too. If I’m totally honest I think the lack of coverage of the Paralympics in the mainstream was partly to blame for my ignorance but sadly I also think there is a general perception that the Paralympics are a kind of token afterthought of the Olympic Games. I am pretty sure we as a nation can change that.
Very few Paralympians are currently household names but that will surely change. Our Paralympic hopefuls are refreshing in a world where many over exposed professional sportsmen and women spend their lives trawling out the same tired old lines to the press. Being part of a minority, being different and often going through life changing episodes that lead some competitors into Paralympic sport makes them engaging, fascinating and more honest then most.
One of my fears in learning about Paralympic sport was understanding all the different conditions, disabilities and categories that put certain athletes into certain classes for different events. I needn’t have worried, a brilliant system has been devised by former Paralympic swimmer Giles Long to help us make the classification system easier for Channel 4 viewers to understand – it explains why people compete against other people who at first glance have seemingly completely different conditions, thus making the competition a more even scrap. If I got my head around it in a few hours, our viewers surely can too.
People who like sport will always be thrilled by good competition. People who like to see those overcoming serious adversity, who like the stories, will be drawn to the Paralympics too. The second reason to watch is fine, providing those viewers are off their sofa and cheering as loud as the rest of us as our men and women go for gold.
Georgie Bingham is part of official broadcaster Channel 4’s team for the London 2012 Paralympics, 29 Aug – 9 SeptTagged in: Arthur Williams, athletes, channel 4, disability, Giles Long, olympics, paralympics, political correctness, Tanni Grey-Thompson
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