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April 2013

Blood Sweat and Tears
29th April 2013


Blood sweat and tears. We’ve had plenty of  those over nine  days of a Paralympic Games that has  exceeded the wildest dreams of  the organizers and reduced  the most cynical  and jaded of sports hacks  to awed reverence. 

But, with the  Blade-runner war between Oscar Pistorius and Alan Olivieira, the sailing-by-straw of Australian Daniel Fitzgibbon , the archery-by-teeth of American Jeff Fabry and the state-of –the art technology that has propelled David Weir and Sarah Storey into the Paralympics pantheon, we’ve also had plenty of blood, sweat and gear.

The games have also exceeded the wildest dreams of some of the world’s most talented photographers. One iconic image after another has flashed its way into our consciousness  as the Paralympics have proved unexpectedly photogenic. Most of them show intense human emotion –  yesterday’s Times alone showcased the serenity of Esther Vergeer, the calmness of Helen Lucas,  the joy of Hannah Cockroft and the shirt-open effort of David Weir. A huge number also dwell lovingly on technology – six different carbon fibre running blades in the picture of Johnny Peacock’s 100 metre triumph, wheelchairs of vastly different shapes and sizes in accounts of athletics, tennis, basketball and rugby. And, away from all that, the picture that seems to sum up  the triumphant appliance of science to these games; former formula one racing driver, double amputee, Alex Zanardi triumphantly and one-handedly , brandishing his gold medal-winning  hand-cycle above his head. 

In the words of the sociologists this is symptomatic of ‘technocentric ideology” and its far more obvious in the Paralympics than the Olympics. Competitors in both rely hugely on science but  in the case of the former the technology ( training aids, computer  analysis, hi-tech clothing, equipment and footwear) is largely hidden from view when the event comes round. In  the case of paralympic sport it takes centre stage, or appears to. For  Blade-runners like Peacock, Pistorius and Olivieira it is literally strapped on. For wheelchair tennis players like Peter Norfolk and for the competitors in wheelchair rugby and basketball, it becomes an extension of their bodies.  

“Cyborgification” – the sociologists’ word, not mine - undoubtedly contributes to Paralympic watchability. We’re fascinated by the possibility of   technologically modified superhumans and the triumph of science over nature. We see no contradiction in the way that Oscar Pistorius’ body is both seen as not human enough for the Olympics ,  and glorified for its “superhuman-ness” in the Paralympics. 

Because Pistorius and co can, in anything above a a sprint, perform at the same level or better than able-bodied athletes – David Rudisha’s world 800 metres record at the Olympics was beaten by over 3 seconds by Weir on Thursday night – their appeal is obvious. The ability of an athlete who has cerebral palsy that affects both his legs and his arms and as a result runs much, much slower than his non-disabled counterpart is, even at these unashamedly feel-good Games, less easy to appreciate.  

As a result, there’s a risk that the Paralympics will become a test of technology rather than athleticism. That would leave behind   developing countries without the science or the resources to enable their disabled athletes to compete on level terms, and it would marginalize those from the developed world for whom, however sophisticated the technology, their bodies were inappropriate.  

Hi-tech means a high price even in the more affluent societies. The Paralympics, like their Olympic counterpart have a commendable ambition to “inspire a generation” but with highly specialised wheelchairs costing  more than £5000,    and  custom-made running blades something in the region of £20,000,  that seems far easier to say than to do. But sports bodies insist quite rightly that it’s better to start somewhere than not at all and that state-of-the-art equipment is more easily found once talent is identified. The top dressage horses ridden by the likes of multi-medallist Lee Peacock and new superstar Sophie Cristiansen cost something in the region of a million pounds but a starter session with Riding for the Disabled costs twelve quid. Swimming costs next to nothing in terms of equipment and neither does goalball, sitting volleyball or either of the two types of football, and Paralympics officials are keen to stress the idea of try- before-you-buy. They recommend that anybody wanting to take up paralympic sport send their details, interest and location to the website and allow local clubs to take it from there.

Thomas Alva Edison defined genius as one per cent inspiration and ninety nine per cent perspiration. He could quite easily have been referring to Paralympic success. Technology may be having a greater and greater say in the  destination of gold medals but it can’t replicate desire, commitment or a never-say-die refusal to accept defeat. Or, come to that, blood, sweat and tears.