T Time: Why I hate the Paralympics

From working as an editor in the UK, to taking charge of a Hong Kong magazine, industry journalist Tony Murray has formed innumerable opinions. Interested to hear a few we invited him to share his thoughts via a regular guest blog. Use the comments form below if you have any feedback or written bile to spit as a result, and please remember; if you don’t like it, he doesn’t work for us…

“And finally (bong!) today, in London, a man with no legs ran a 100m in less than three minutes  (bong!)….” It’s been billed as a continuation or even the successor to this summer’s Games, but actually the Paralympics looks ever more like the skateboarding duck of the Olympic world.

In truth, the Paralympics is a difficult event. It taxes the media to maintain the myth that it’s Just as Significant and No Different to the Proper Olympics. It also forces the public to take a view of it that sits somewhere between patronising and a sort of awkward, half-hearted acceptance.

After all, we’ve just had weeks of physical specimens, honed to a peak of highly-trained perfection, holding aloft gold medals, symbols of the highest levels of human achievement.

Blokes across the country have feigned interest in cycling and hurdling, while concealing a semi- at the thought of a lycra-clad Jessica Ennis or Victoria Pendleton bending over to pick up a spoon. While, for the ladies, there were twittered pix of Tom Daley in his Speedos.

How, then does this parade of Adonii sit alongside the Paralympics? While good-natured ribbing resulted from any mention of Olympic tickets for the Women’s Beach Volleyball, how would we react should an office member brag of a similar allocation at the Paralympics? Unless they had a relative on the team, that is. We’d feign approval, of course, but would there be a non-PC hint of discomfort nestling there?

The problem of squaring the able-bodied Olympics alongside its more physically-challenged companion is not a new one. Back in 2008, the Chinese government printed a special booklet of advice for volunteers helping out at the Beijing Paralympics.
Volunteers, it read, should be aware that physically handicapped people tend to be miserable, truculent and difficult to handle.

The booklet was swiftly pulped following an international outcry. While the Chinese booklet clearly highlights the huge problems the PRC has with dealing with less than perfect specimens of humanity, it does – no matter how ham-fistedly or mistakenly– acknowledge a difference. Something you’d be hard to distinguish in the 2012 media approach.

Over the weekend, to somewhat muted coverage, Daniella Peers, a member of the Canadian wheelchair basketball team at the 2004 Athens Paralympics, billed the event’s 2012 incarnation as a “freakshow”.

Commenting on the media treatment of this year’s tourament, Ms Peers said: “They [the media] are always referring back to the idea that disability is this tragic, horrible thing in our bodies. Focusing on bodies as the root of disability is like seeing racism as a problem of skin colour.”

Much though I hate to disagree with a bronze-medal winning Paralympian, even a Canadian one, I wonder if she’s not missed the point pretty much entirely. Surely the ultimate insult to these physically-challenged athletes is to treat them exactly the same as the specimens of human perfection that preceded them?

Does anyone really believe that Zara Phillips had to try a tenth as hard as Ellie Simmonds to get on the winners’ podium? While having Prince Phillip as a granddad is certainly some kind of handicap, it’s clearly preferable to short-limbed dwarfism. Well, probably.

The media coverage of the Paralympics brings into relief a clear problem of the Times We Live In. We’ve started to confuse equality and homogeneity. Differences have to be papered over, rather than considered or celebrated.

Frankly thalidomide athletes with their arms aloft in conscious mimicry of the poses struck by the long-limbed athletes of a month ago look a little lacking in dignity. Even grotesque, though it’s hardly permissible to say – or even think – so.

Should these athletes, at the behest of some poolside photographer, really be expected to adopt the ill-fitting template of their “physically-perfect” predecessors?

We live in mad Alice in Wonderland times, times where, as the Dodo decreed, all must have prizes. Everyone, in short (or, even, if short) must be treated exactly the same, no matter what their age, creed, colour, intelligence or physical prowess. This is regardless of their needs, preferences or culture. Taken to extreme, as it was over the weekend, this sees parents complaining that their offspring have failed their English GCSEs just because they’re semi-literate. Shame.

The Vulcans, as so often, have a word for it. Unfortunately that word is IDIC – Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. As maxims for life derived from short-lived American TV sci-fi shows of the 1960s go, it’s clearly not a bad one. It’s certainly several up on “Danger, Will Robinson, danger…” which lacks a somewhat more general application.

The Paralympics is not the Olympics and the media should stop pretending it is. While the Olympics celebrate the perfection of the human form, the Paralympics celebrate the sublime nature of the human spirit in overcoming adversity. It’s no sin to say one is less photogenic than the other.

Perhaps the true beauty of the Paralympics is that it is one event that brings into sharp focus those twin contradictions of contemporary life – an abject body fascism and an obsession with pretending everyone is fundamentally the same. If it takes a paraplegic on a podium to bring that one into relief, well so be it.
Live Long and Prosper Y’all. Well most of you.

Tony Murray is Managing Editor of Gafencu Men in Hong Kong. He was previously editor of Adline and group managing editor of the Carnyx Group, publishers of The Drum and former publishers of The Marketeer. You can contact him at tonymurray37ATgmailDOTcom

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