A society is judged by its treatment of those less able than the accepted norm. Rio, you have been judged lacking. I am not talking about green diving pools or empty Olympic stadium seats. All those issues pale into insignifcance compared to your plans for the staging of the Paralympics starting on the 7th September.
Despite your economic and political problems you did a good job for the able-bodied Olympians. But you have destroyed any right to justifiable pride with your plans for the Paralympians.
The workforce has been downsized. Travel grants have been cut. The facilities at Deodoro Park have been dismantled and media centres closed. Perhaps worst of all, you have closed or downgraded many of the transport facilities for the athletes. Paralympians may be able to whizz around the track but their wheelchairs have difficulty making it across town to reach the starting line on time.
The Paralympics have probably done more than any other event to raise the disabled from freak status to that of valued members of society. But it has been a long hard struggle.
The Paralympic Movement had its origins in postwar Britain and the work of a German Jewish refugee neurosurgeon called Ludwig Guttman. He was a true medical hero. Dr Guttman was put in charge of a spinal injuries unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital outside London and soon learned the value of sport as a means of improving both the psychological and physical health of young men turned by bombs into paraplegics.
In 1948 the Olympics came to London and Dr Guttman persuaded the organisers to let him demonstrate his patients’ abilities at the opening ceremony. The event was an instant success as the hearts of the British crowd went out to their injured war heroes.
The result was the annual Stoke Mandeville Games which by 1952 was attracting 130 international competitors.
The first official Paralympics were held after the Rome Olympics in 1960, but The International Paralympic Committee did not become official until 1989. It is separate from the International Olympic Committee, although they are clearly linked in their basic aim of improving society through sport.
It was not until 2001 that it was agreed that any host city bid for the Olympics had to include staging the Paralympics. Television coverage of the Paralympics was almost non-existent until the Sydney Olympics of 2000. US coverage has been among the worst. NBC secured the US broadcast rights for the 2012 Paralympics but broadcast only five hours—and that was on its pay channel.
It was in London in 2012 where the Paralympics reached their zenith. No expense was spared and the British people truly rose to the occasion.
For me the spirit of those 2012 Paralympics was summed up by a women’s doubles table tennis match. The sport is dominated by the Chinese, but this game for the bronze medal was between Italy and Great Britain. The players were wheelchair-bound cerebral palsy victims.
The crowd of about 1,000 was packed into the table tennis hall with a partition wall and wooden stands. As you can imagine, there was strong support for the British team.
There was no question of slamming the plastic ball across the table. It was a major effort for these women to place their racquets under the white spheroid and gently tap it up and over the net. Play was agonisingly slow. But that didn’t matter. Two British women athletes were about to win a bronze medal for their country. Not two cerebral palsy victims, but two athletes.
The British pair quickly fell behind, but the crowd refused to let them stay there. They shouted. They screamed. They stamped their feet and roared. The stands, the walls, the entire room, literally shook. The British women fed off the frenzy and won by two points. It was—as all great athletic events should be—truly inspiring.
Tom Arms broadcasts on world affairs for a number of US radio stations including WTKF at http://www.wtkf107.com/. His Weekly Viewpoints discussion programme can be heard at 1830 EST on Wednesdays and his LookAhead at the next week’s main events on Fridays at 1800.
LookAhead Radio World Report for week commencing 29 August: