After the massive success of the London 2012 Olympic Games, the Olympic Stadium saw the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games last night (August 29).
I could just start and end this piece by telling you that it was utterly phenomenal. It really was inspiring, moving, spectacular, all of the things that you would hope for but dare not expect from an opening ceremony charged with the daunting responsibility of following on from Danny Boyle's superb extravaganza a month ago. It was well after midnight by the time it finished and I got to bed, but when it finally came to an end it left you in no doubt that the Paralympic Games were here, and that they were huge.
I have to say that at the start of Channel 4's live broadcast of the ceremony I wasn't expecting to feel quite so enthused and excited about the event by the end. I just didn't trust Channel 4 to be able to convey the magnitude of the thing to our living rooms. The previous evening's edition of Jon Snow's Paralympic Show had been a bit of a write-off. Jonathan Edwards missing his cue and then looking rudely over the shoulder of the person he was meant to be interviewing did not inspire condfidence. Nor did Snow's apparent lack of knowledge of all things sport, never mind Paralympic sport. He's a newsreader, and it showed.
Snow and Edwards are in attendance again for the grand opening, and they are joined by Paralympic wheelchair basketball bronze medallist and television presenter Ade Adepitan. He's a much safer pair of hands. I'm loathe to pepper this piece with clanging examples of name-dropping, but he is the first of several faces familiar to me throughout the night. Being around the same age, I played against Ade at junior levels and in the league on countless occasions.
The junior matches were particularly intense. It seemed like almost every year the national junior title would be between his London-based Tigers and our North West-based Meteors team. We won some, we lost some but they were all great battles. There is an old cover of the Great Britain Wheelchair Basketball Association Handbook which has a photograph of Ade and I contesting a ball. It is not a word of a lie that a split second after this photograph was taken I lobbed the ball over his head as he over-stretched to try and take it away from me, and then I had the whole court open to drive straight in for an easy lay-up. Well, as easy as lay-ups ever got for me. Which wasn't very. I can't remember whether we won or lost that game but I'm doing aeroplanes around the room just thinking about that moment. It doesn't get any better. Unlike Ade, who got an awful lot better than me and most other players very quickly.
Back to the plot. There's a countdown to the start of the ceremony appearing intermittently in the bottom corner of the screen. We only have about 18 minutes at this point, but this is time enough for a truly humbling and inspiring film about one of the athletes competing in the games. Martine Wright is part of the women's sitting volleyball team, and her back story is of her experience of the 7/7 London bombings of 2005. Just a day after it was announced that London would be hosting the games, Martine lost both of her legs when a device was detonated on the tube train near Aldgate Station. Her journey to this point has been a remarkable one. She feels lucky, she says, which is a stark reminder to all of us that as difficult as things get from time to time, there is always something to be grateful for, to be positive about.
And then it starts. Snow hands over almost seamlessly (almost) to Krishnan Guru-Murthy and Jeff Adams. Adams is a former Paralympic athlete from Canada, six times a world champion on the track. The relationship between the two should work. The vastly experienced broadcaster and news man and the sporting expert, but they have their moments. When the Canadian team enters the parade Guru-Murthy instructs his co-commentator to stop talking about his country. He's only half joking and there is a troubling silence for a couple of moments afterwards.
The parade has several moments of uncertainty and intrigue, moments when you wonder whether what you have just seen was really meant to happen and when you wonder what might happen next. An Australian athlete stumbles on the track and nearly incapacitates himself before competition has even begun. An Algerian waves a two-fingered salute to the camera. There's a Danish athlete propelling his wheelchair around the track using only his legs and feet, and to help him do so more quickly he is doing it backwards. A Brazilian enters fully into the spirit by painting his face entirely in the colours of his national flag. There are Irish and Belgian athletes accompanied by helper dogs. All this aswell as Ghanaians dancing, Mexicans decked out in faboulously colourful ponchos and sombreros, and German ladies in striking pink outfits.
But there's a gripe. There's always a gripe, unfortunately. In the Beijing Paralympics of 2008 China topped the medal table by the proverbial country mile. Their Paralympic team is vast, almost epic. They are expected to lord it over everyone once again here in the UK. Nobody has told the producers at Channel 4 however, who within a few moments of the emergence of the Chinese team into the stadium, choose to go to a commercial break. Now, we all understand the need for commercial channels to raise the funds to be able to afford to broadcast events of this importance, but really, does the timing of ad breaks have to be so well......untimely? Undeniably it takes something away from the event. The Chinese athletes are set to become some of the biggest stars of the London 2012 Paralympic Games. I'm sure the audience would have benefitted from a little introduction.
It's not that Channel 4 haven't considered the need for their audience to get to know the athletes. They have taken certain steps to do so which would never have been taken for the Olympic Games. Several athletes (including the Australian who later stumbles during the parade and our very own Martine Wright) are interviewed by Claire Balding as they wait to enter the stadium. This just would not happen during the Olympic Games opening ceremony. Not a second of Boyle's show was sacrificed to add in interviews with athletes outside the stadium. It's hard to say whether Channel 4's alternative approach helps or hinders the viewing experience. It's a debate we could have I suppose. But alternative is exactly what Channel 4 are. It's always been pretty much their raison d'etre.
So what are we potentially missing during these sometimes unwanted interludes? In short...Englightenment. This is the title of the ceremony which, introduced by theoretical physicist and author Stephen Hawking, has just about everything. There's Sir Ian McKellen as Prospero from Shakespeare's The Tempest, an unrecognisable Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson (among many others and yes I did meet her once) suspended from a wire above the stadium, hundreds of dancers (including one double amputee ballet dancer), Birdy, Beverley Knight, a model of the statue of Alison Lapper - a double amputee as pregnant as one of the pauses during a conversation between Snow and Edwards - and finally Margaret Maughan, the first Brit to win a Paralympic gold medal all the way back in 1960. Maughan lights the flame, but not before it is brought into the stadium on a zip-wire by another double amputee and aspiring Paralympian Joe Townsend. Swimmer Liz Johnson takes the athletes oath and then there are the speeches, plenty of speeches.
Following Lord Coe is Sir Philip Craven, President of the International Paralympic Committee. Clang, there goes another name-drop but the paths of Sir Phil and myself have crossed many times. He was involved in wheelchair basketball long before I was born and, from what I have heard of that time, was among the very best players in the world in his day. When I played against him he was a little way past that, but he was still outstanding. He had this metronomic, almost faultless shooting technique and was just deadly from anywhere inside the three-point line, particularly from either baseline. I remember him trying to pass on some of this wisdom to me at the many junior international training camps I attended years ago. Before the beer and women. Before Haj and Nigel. That's a whole other blog. Suffice to say that not even Sir Phil Craven could have drummed the requisite attributes into me.
But....it does bring me nicely onto what for me was the spine-tinglingly bitter-sweet highlight (and lowlight) of the whole shebang. Just after the parade, and just before Maughan lit the flame, the Olympic flag was carried into the stadium by members of the Great Britain Men's under-22 wheelchair basketball team. You can probably fill in the rest yourselves by now but just for the avoidance of any confusion...I used to be in that! I can't explain to you what it would have been like to be a part of the opening ceremony, carrying the Olympic flag into the stadium with my team-mates. No really I can't explain to you because it never happened. I was 15 years too late, as I explained immediately and somewhat impulsively on my Facebook page. One man who does know now is Billy Bridge, a member of my former side the Vikings and one of the lucky ones able to take part with his under-22 team-mates. We also have a former Viking in the men's squad competing in London in Dan Highcock. Another former Viking, Dave Heaton, will be competing in his sixth Games in the sport of wheelchair fencing. It's a proud time to be associated with the club.
But this not about me and the Vikings. Much. So we'll move to the finale. It was well past my bedtime but I wasn't missing Beverley Knight's jaw-droppingly rousing rendition of 'I Am What I Am'. If it didn't move you then the bad news is that you're dead. Choosing a Gloria Gaynor number might ordinarily be considered a little cliched, but somehow it just seemed to fit. The brilliance of Knight helped win me over here, I have to admit. The cynic in me might normally have argued that we want to focus on the sport itself and not the overcoming of adversity or the ongoing fight for acceptance in society. Sometimes as a disabled person you feel like there is no in between. You're either a hero and an inspiration or you're an embarrassment. I don't want to be either and I don't feel like either. I'm just a bloke from Thatto Heath.
As I finish this I have just started my lunch break and I'm into the action. Spain are making short work of Italy in the men's wheelchair basketball (yes, for the umpteenth time, the place I maybe could have been if I hadn't been railroaded by my alcoholism and my lack of ability). It's really here.