Paralympics: Some are only watching to get the gory details of how athletes acquired their impairments

Lisa Egan

150989483 300x192 Paralympics: Some are only watching to get the gory details of how athletes acquired their impairmentsIt finally happened about two seconds into the opening ceremony intro show. I’d been feeling iffy for a few days but Jon Snow finally made the inevitable happen: Abuse of the word “inspirational” triggered my gag reflex.

These Paralympics are responsible for many great things: They’ve brought disability sport to the national consciousness (and Channel 4 are largely responsible for this) and they’ve helped highlight some of the brutality of the cuts aimed at disabled people. But they’ve also shown us some of the most condescending and ridiculous attitudes to disabled people I have ever seen.

“Inspirational”, “overcoming”, “against the odds”, “brave”, “suffers from” and other such nonsense are spewing forth from the mouths of anyone allowed near a microphone. While many of us are glued to the telly wanting to see amazing sport, there are some who are only watching because they want the gory details about how athletes acquired their impairments. The whole nation have turned into those people on the bus who demand my medical history on the grounds that I use a wheelchair; and people are tuning into the Paras less for the sport, and more for Embarrassing Bodies without the genital shots. Or with the genital shots if the Paralympic uniforms are as tight as the Olympic ones.

When I was a swimmer I didn’t do it because I wanted non-disabled people to think “She’s so inspirational. If she can swim that fast with a skeleton like that; then I’ve got no excuse to avoid the ironing. I’m so inspired.” I did it because I wanted to swim in the Paralympics.

When I was doing a training set of thousands of metres; did I do it thinking constantly “gosh, I’m so brave. I hope the world notices how brave I am”? No. To be honest I was a teenager and I mostly spent long distance sets pondering “so how do I tell everyone that I’m gay?”

I didn’t get up at 5am to go training so that the nation would collectively go “pretty good swimmer. Now, tell me what’s wrong with her! I demand to know her back story! Did she have an accident? That’s so much more interesting than her swimming!” I got up at 5am because I wanted to swim faster than I’d ever swum before.

I just tuned in to five minutes of dressage. As Lee Pearson appeared on my screen did one commentator turn to the other and say “now, tell me about his accolades?” No. The commentator asked the other “now, tell me something about his disability?”

Richard Wilson talked to the BBC at the Beijing Paralympics about how all these athletes are so fascinating for having come back from accidents rather than succumbing to depression. I think I actually said “I don’t believe it” as I was so astounded by his ignorance.

“Against all the odds” is another ludicrous one. Oscar Pistorius, Im Dong-hyun and Natalia Partyka made it to the Olympics “against all the odds”. With only one in five of the population having an impairment – thus Paralympic eligibility – a disabled athlete’s odds aren’t too bad. Don’t get me wrong, Paralympians train just as hard as Olympians to make it to the top – Ellie Simmonds was living away from home to train aged only 13 while Nyree Kindred trained right up until the day she was due to give birth. In no way are Paralympians taking it easy compared to Olympians. But with only 20% of the population eligible to compete, “Against all the odds” is non-disabled non-sense.

“Overcoming.” It technically means “to prevail over” or “to defeat”. Over the next 10 days you’ll hear the sentence “overcoming her condition” more times than at any other point in your life. Of course, if someone trained so hard that they literally did overcome their impairment and made their arm grow back they wouldn’t be at the Paralympics.

“Suffers from:” When you saw all that excitement at the opening ceremony, when you saw people pulling faces at the TV cameras, when you saw Team GB showered by glitter, did you really think “look at those poor people suffering”? When non-disabled people break world records, do you consider that they’re suffering too? No? Then it’s pretty safe to assume that there’s no “suffering” going on in the minds of disabled athletes either. If you must talk about people’s diagnoses (I’d urge you not to, but it is occasionally relevant) try “has”. It works great and doesn’t come with a dollop of prejudice on the side like manky mayonnaise.

I’ve got tickets to the Paralympics because I want to watch people at the top of their game swim fast, throw far, and in the case of wheelchair rugby – beat the crap out of each other. Unfortunately it seems like more people are more interested in a freak show/inspiration porn combo.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, there are plucky disableds on my telly. I’m so overcome with inspiration because of their bravery that I may wet myself.

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  • goldenmug

    I think the ideas (if actually articulated, rather than just indicating a warm fuzzy feeling) is that, “If they can manage to do that with a leg blown off, then I should stop complaining about having to go to work when I’ve got the ‘flu.”

    At it’s best, it amounts to what one commentator put into words after the wheelchair 5,00m (I think) “If you’re sitting in a wheelchair at home, watching this, then why not get someone to take you down to your local sports hall and have a go. This could be you!” That’s a genuine encouragement (paralleled at the Olympics by pointing out that you don’t need to go to Eton to get a gold medal) to get people who might otherwise be writing themselves off to try and expand their own horizons.

    But eventually you get to, “If they can manage to do that from a wheelchair, then all those other idle b****rs in wheelchairs could do a day’s work and stop sponging off hard-working people like me.”

    Not good.

  • goldenmug

    How is that worse than “couldn’t afford proper trainers/only Mum and me/tragedy of my sister’s suicide” stuff which every other athlete – or high achiever of any kind – has to put up with?

    It goes along with something else which bemuses me. This is something I hear again and again from commentators, and which I hear reflected in general conversation, “British interest in this competition has gone, when xxxx was knocked out.” Wow, some sports fans the British are – as soon as there isn’t a Britain in the running we lose interest.

    I’m not much of sports fan myself – I’m more of a muso. But I don’t decide not to listen to a concert because the person singing isn’t British.

    Perhaps all this “triumph over tragedy” stuff tells us something else. Maybe we really aren’t interested in the Paralympic sports themselves at all. Perhaps we were never very interested in the niceties of the T-whatever long jump or the clever tactics of the wheelchair racers at all – regardless of the body shape of the person doing it. In fact we didn’t give a toss about most of the Olympic sports either – hands up all those who really miss having a weekly dose of discus throwing.

    Is the women’s heptathlon really that interesting? Or was it just that Jess Ennis was “the poster girl” and looked like such a nice girl – and from Yorkshire too! Consider too the rowing girl (one of them) who had a lot of syrup poured over her every time she appeared because of some personal setback or “tragedy”.

    And what about all those “fans” of rugby, who aren’t interested in Fiji v Tonga because no one they know is playing. The enthusiasm of most self-styled football fans is confined to their own team’s activities and little to do with the niceties of “the beautiful game”. (I’m assuming there are some – I saw 10 minutes about Rinaldo – I think it was Rinaldo – and even I could see there was something remarkable going on actually on the field.)

    So there’s my hypothesis (to be found somewhere in a late-night rant) – the interest in the gory details of the disabled athlete is simply the easy and obvious bit of personal life which is all most of the audience want to know about anyway – regardless of the able-bodied/disabled or athletics/football divide of what they’re seeing. It really isn’t about the score, it’s about how they feel.

  • goldenmug

    You say, “Do I want to foster an environment where all disabled people’s medical histories are considered public property? No..” Is this any worse than having the medical histories of non-disabled people considered as public property? (Not that I condone that either.)

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