If you’ve seen my School Days video, you’ll know I used to be a member of a local sports club for disabled people when I was a kid. So, as well as doing sports at school, I would also take part in lots of swimming galas around England, from Darlington in the north, to Plymouth in the south, and lots of other places in between.
There were people with lots of different disabilities at those events, so to try and make things as equal as possible, they would either try and group people with similar conditions together in each event, or the competitors in each race would start at different times (from slowest first, to fastest last), based on their personal best times. The theory being that the finish of each race would be quite close, although often that never really held true.
In any case, I won a lot of medals and a few trophies over those years. And it got to a point where I was offered the chance to train for the national disabled swimming team. But I decided not to take it any further. I wasn’t sufficiently interested or motivated to take it to a more professional level, instead having my sights on things like my exams, university and my career beyond that.
I didn’t even know about the Paralympics back then. If I had been aware of it, and if it had been as widely covered as it is now, and if the right support, coaching and funding had been available, maybe I’d have thought differently, who knows? But at the time, I was more interested in other things. And I don’t regret my decision at all, I’ve been very successful on the route I did take through life. But when you watch the kind of performances that we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks, it’s impossible not to wonder how things could have been, potentially, with the right drive and determination.
The London 2012 Paralympics were the first that I, and I suspect millions of other people, really paid close attention to here in the UK. Partly because of the fact that it was in London, inevitably, but also because Channel 4 had the wisdom and the courage to give over a huge chunk of their schedules to broadcast it and promote it. Although the Paralympics had been mentioned in news coverage in previous years, they had never before had anywhere near the level of coverage that they got in London.
And Channel 4 weren’t just showing the sports. They were also emphasising the positives about disability. So many able-bodied people see disability as purely a negative thing – certainly the term implies as such, and even among the disabled community there are plenty of people who feel the severity of their condition makes the association warranted, and they’re entitled to feel that way. If you’re one of the latter, this post may not be for you, given that I was a big fan of the Paralympics. But I respect the feelings of those disabled people who didn’t like them and didn’t find them appropriate. I do touch on that towards the end of this post, I can appreciate where those opinions are coming from.
But the competitors and presenters in London were all demonstrating the good points, which is what I and many others really enjoyed and took to heart. We can achieve amazing things, we can enjoy ourselves, we can mix with ordinary people and be part of society. Disability was being celebrated on TV in a way that nobody had ever seen before.
So it was wonderful to see Channel 4 taking up the reins again for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. To their credit, it must be also said that BBC Radio 5 were also covering the games substantially, with the aid of the legendary Tanni Grey-Thompson no less. But Channel 4 enabled us to watch it, which was so vital and so enjoyable. Yes, it had regular adverts, and some of the events were limited to online streaming on their website. But those points aside, they were dedicating entire afternoons and evenings on their primary channel to solid Paralympics output. The only times they used one of their lesser-watched digital channels was to continue the coverage while the news was on their main station (using More4) or to provide audio description and signing for the opening and closing ceremonies (on 4Seven). Everything else had to give way, in an even greater way compared to London. If 2012 was Channel 4 experimenting with the concept to see if it was popular, 2016 was when they seemed to find their (often prosthetic) feet and really run with it.
They really were taking great pride in putting our athletes centre stage for everyone to see and enjoy. And to promote it, they put together a trailer featuring disabled athletes & musicians (with versions that were audio described and signed & subtitled), along with an epic Ode To Rio by James Corden.
Thanks to their efforts, we got to see the likes of Kadeena Cox, Sarah Storey, Ellie Simmonds, Ellie Robinson, Hannah Cockroft, Hannah Russell, Lee Pearson, Libby Clegg, Stephanie Millward, Will Bayley, Susie Rodgers, Jody Cundy, Richard Whitehead, Jonnie Peacock, Ollie Hynd, David Smith and so many others rack up 64 gold, 39 silver and 44 bronze medals for Paralympics GB! That’s a storming total of 147, which they earned in stunning fashion in a wide variety of sports. I love the fact that each medal makes a different noise when you shake it too – a simple but wonderful idea.
And there were plenty of heroes from other countries too, such as Daniel Dias for the host country, Liam Malone for New Zealand, and Bahman Golbarnezhad from Iran, the latter tragically losing his life during one of the road cycling events. If the games weren’t already demonstrating in abundance how precious life is, that shadow cast over the final weekend made it crystal clear.
All of the athletes, representing all countries, with all manner of disabilities, and all manner of fascinating stories behind them, gave it their all. From the thrills and spills of wheelchair rugby to the guided runs on the athletics track… the sitting volleyball players to the boccia masters… the swimmers in the pool to the sailors on the sea… the riders on their beautiful horses to the cyclists zooming around the velodrome as if auditioning for the Hadron Collider… from the table-tennis player with no arms to the one-legged high jumper (two of the highlights that stick in my head)… they all entertained and inspired more people than they probably realise. It was impressive and joyful to watch each and every day. The responses on social media have been overwhelmingly positive too, which is quite a rarity these days given the abuse that often flies around with any event, so that has been lovely to see.
The effect that these athletes have had on people was illustrated perfectly in a beautiful speech made by Alex Brooker on The Last Leg. That poignant and heartfelt moment came out of nowhere in amongst all the comedy and celebrations, which made it all the more powerful, and it set the internet alight with supportive reactions, quite rightly. Away from the sporting action, this was one of the most memorable moments of the entire coverage, and I commend Alex for speaking so eloquently.
Indeed, The Last Leg has been a hit ever since it was introduced for the 2012 Paralympics, and I’ve been an avid fan ever since those early days. Adam Hills, Alex Brooker and Josh Widdicombe are real friends, and their chemistry comes across so well, something which has been more evident than ever during the Rio Games, as this Guardian article explains very well. Making a show that is hilariously funny, while also dealing with traditionally tricky questions relating to disability and other serious topics, can’t be easy on a weekly basis as it is, like they usually do. So to make engaging, entertaining shows for 11 days straight is no mean feat. Yet it’s been full of classic moments.
Plus their theme tune – Harder Than You Think by Public Enemy – has also being used by Channel 4 for the Paralympics coverage as a whole since 2012, giving it a suitably punchy, uplifting feel (and if you’re curious, the other piece of music regularly used by The Last Leg is a library track called The Power from Zone Music).
As well as Alex’s speech, Adam Hills also gave an emotional speech on the very last show, thanking everybody involved. And Johnny Vegas was also deeply affected by seeing the events in person, clearly not wanting to leave early for his contractual filming of Still Open All Hours back in the UK. For people who are used to him being quite a loud and brash comedian, joking about his weight and drinking and often being rude, his presence and attitude here just showed what a powerful effect the Paralympic Games can have on someone who is able-bodied, who isn’t so accustomed to seeing this kind of spectacle. It really did seem to hit him harder than he or anyone else expected.
There was lots of great comedy in amongst all of the heartfelt moments as well. Whether it be Adam dying his hair, or Alex attempting the high jump over a box, or Josh on a blindfolded run around the studio, or whatever, it has made me laugh out loud every single day. It’s been such a positive feel-good show, which is what I’ve always loved about it. My personal favourite funny moment, that I haven’t tired of watching and still laugh at every time, was when Tom, the mascot awarded to all the medal winners, was stolen from Clare Balding by a child for a second time. Her comic timing and reactions are spot on.
Don’t worry, she did end up with a golden Tom of her own in the last show. But she was a great sport (pun intended) for doing that. Indeed Clare Balding deserves great credit for her contribution to the coverage, as do all of the presenters. Channel 4 employed a significantly large number of disabled presenters and production staff to deliver and commentate on the coverage of these games, ensuring that there was a wealth of experience and representation both on and off camera, and it worked extremely well. They’ve even had a deaf continuity announcer between some of their programmes.
Clare Balding isn’t disabled of course, and neither is Julie Walters, who was the voice of LEXI, their classification explanation system. Nor is Josh Widdicombe on The Last Leg for that matter, and nor were their guests Johnny Vegas, Stephen Mangan and Katherine Ryan during the week. Some people may question why the whole team wasn’t made up of disabled people. But that would actually have been wrong.
It was vital to have able-bodied people involved on the team. We don’t want disability to be seen as an exclusive club. We don’t want the games to be perceived as an event that only the disabled can enjoy and celebrate. We don’t want able-bodied people to think that we don’t want them to interact with us and engage with us. We don’t want them to think that all we do is moan about how we can’t do things. No.
We want to show the doubters and the uninformed that we are more able and capable than they sometimes give us credit for, that disability isn’t all about negativity and restriction, and above all that we’re human beings just like them, who can do most of the same things that they can.
Having able-bodied people involved with the presentation greatly assists with that and makes perfect sense. Clare Balding is well-known and respected by millions as an intelligent and compassionate presenter for the Olympics and equestrian events, meaning that many people will come over to watch the coverage because of her, as they like her and trust her. Likewise, a lot of young people are fans of Josh Widdicombe, and The Last Leg is the perfect vehicle to showcase both his comedy talents and the fact that he’s a nice guy, so his fans will join him there. The Last Leg has a loyal, expansive fanbase, especially among younger people, so placing them as the centrepiece of each evening’s coverage was an inspired and wise decision.
Stars like Clare and Josh are a friendly, guiding hand for the able-bodied viewer. They can both ask and answer tricky questions from an able-bodied perspective as to what is going on, in order to make things much clearer. And they are letting able-bodied people know that it’s perfectly ok and encouraged to watch and celebrate the disabled athletes achieving such great things, something which many people would feel too awkward about doing sometimes. And avoiding awkwardness is one of the things we want to encourage among able-bodied people.
Now, on the flipside, as noted earlier, I know there are many disabled people who don’t like the Games, and I’m sorry if this post has been sickeningly over-positive to any of those who read it. I’m not expecting or asking everyone to agree with it. I’ve stumbled upon one or two Twitter accounts full of negativity about the competition, and they’re interesting reading. I don’t agree with their opinions on the Games, but I respect where they’re coming from. There are a huge number of disabled people for whom life is extremely difficult, sometimes even impossible, to tolerate on a daily basis, and the last thing they care about is a load of people running, jumping, swimming, etc, while they feel ignored and let down by society and the government. And that’s perfectly understandable, they’re entitled to have those opinions, which are probably well justified by their circumstances.
For example, there’s a parody video of the Superhumans ad, which demonstrates just a few of the common access issues that disabled people have to deal with on a daily basis.
Certainly, the Paralympics isn’t going to radically change things for disabled people overnight. And nobody’s saying that it will. It’s not going to cure people of their disabilities. It’s not going to stop the government unfairly cutting benefits and funding that would help millions of disabled people to live better and longer lives. It’s not going to change the attitudes of every single member of society towards the disabled. It’s true that many disabilities haven’t been represented or reported on as much as others, and that there could have been more females or people of ethnic minorities on the presenting teams. One could easily find holes and errors in the coverage here and there if they wanted to be picky. It can never be perfect.
So we do have to be realistic. The Paralympics isn’t a magic pill that will make everything better. But it is a huge and important step in the right direction for disability awareness and respect. The coverage has focused far more on the positives than the negatives, promoting disabled people and showing the sorts of things that they are capable of overcoming and achieving. Nobody is saying that disabled people have to follow in their footsteps by taking part in sport, and these are extreme examples of what can be done. But they’re not impossible examples, and they send out vital messages. To the able-bodied, they are a call for respect and support towards disabled people in general. And to the disabled, they are a message of positivity, reminding us that disability doesn’t mean inability, even if there are days when we may feel that’s the case. If you can get the right support and motivation, you can be surprised what you can achieve.
What now needs to happen is for this kind of momentum to keep moving forward. Hopefully other disabled campaign groups can try to capitalise on people’s heightened awareness following the Games, spreading the messages and clarifying them even further. Scope are already running their excellent End The Awkward campaign for another year, for example, and Guide Dogs Week is coming up next month. What we also need is for Channel 4, or any prominent broadcasters really, to cover other disability competitions, such as European and World Championships in athletics, cycling, swimming, etc, and the Winter Paralympics of course, that will occur between now and Tokyo in 2020. It shouldn’t go silent for the next 4 years, or the messages, memories and emotions generated by these Games may drift out of the public consciousness. Disabled people don’t just hibernate for the best part of half a decade when the Paralympics aren’t on – we’re always here!
None of those things on their own will change the world, but every bit of awareness and education counts hugely. We shouldn’t have to raise that sort of awareness in this day and age, but the experiences of many disabled people on a daily basis makes it clear that it is still required. So if the Paralympics has encouraged some disabled people to speak up and educate others more than they otherwise would have, in a way that is respectful and positive, and if they’ve encouraged a large number of able-bodied people to think twice about disability in an entertaining way, making them more prepared to listen and take the messages on board, then it’s all been worthwhile. It’s about getting the message out there and helping to change perceptions, bit by bit. The baton has now been passed from the athletes to others to carry this onwards. We all have a responsibility, whether disabled or not, to promote respect for disabled people, and respect for everyone in society for that matter. We’re all different, we’re all unique, but we’re all human and we’re all capable of amazing things.
So thank you Rio for putting on a great show, despite all the difficulties you faced. Thank you to Channel 4, The Last Leg, BBC Radio 5 and all the associated presenters and production staff, for covering the Games and bringing them to the attention of millions who would otherwise have been unaware, uninformed and uninterested in them. And thank you especially to all the athletes for giving us such a fantastic, stunning and inspiring show of strength, determination and achievements over the past 2 weeks. You’ve all entertained and delighted us, while also playing a hugely important part in improving awareness and respect for the disabled community at large. That work doesn’t end here by any stretch, but let’s hope it catapults it forward. The “Superhumans” have reminded us just how super and human we all are in our own unique and special ways. 🙂