Wednesday, 28 September 2016

A Short Memoir Of Feeling Low

I'm writing this because I think it might help. Or at least I'm told that writing about things like this helps if you suffer from them. I probably won't even post it on Facebook or Twitter, such is its sensitive nature. It's purely an attempt at some kind of catharsis. If you find it then you're the sort of person who actively visits Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard without being prompted to do so on social media. For that I thank you.

It's Wednesday night. I've been off work since Monday afternoon. Partly because I can sense my waterworks starting to play up and I want to nip it in the bud in anticipation of my birthday celebrations next week. But partly, probably mostly, because I've been experiencing some lows. I hesitate to call it depression because I haven't been diagnosed. I just know that I've been feeling really down on myself for over a week. It's probably longer than that. I mean I've felt like I'm not going to achieve very much of anything I really want to in life for as long as I can remember. But over the last week or so my disappointment in myself has grown and grown so that by last Wednesday I had reached a point of very little self worth.

Actually, now I remember it this latest low started with what by my standards was a roaring success. During the Paralympics I wrote several blogs on these pages about the event. One on the opening ceremony in particular caught the attention of a Twitter follower of mine who works for the Mirror. The Mirror. National tabloid and all that. He's from St Helens I think. Definitely a Saints fan. So I got a lucky break there. My Saints musings on are the only Earthly reason why anyone follows me on Twitter, much less anyone so prominent in the industry.

So anyway this inadvertent connection led to me being asked to write another piece on the Paralympics for possible publication on the Mirror's website. With an actual by-line. A by-line in the online version of a national tabloid. Anyone who has ever tried to do anything in journalism will appreciate how big that is for a writer. To put it into perspective, I can't even get a by-line in the St Helens Star for covering Thatto Heath Crusaders games, so precious are the journalists on the staff there about their by-lines. And yet I now have one in the Mirror online. Yes. I wrote the piece, it was deemed good enough for publication, I got my by-line.

Happy days then. Only it's not, not really. Perhaps it's now become human nature to automatically think about the bottom line but I have been dismayed by the number of people whose first question upon finding out about my success was;

"Did you get paid for it?" or "Did you get any money for it?" or some other enquiry as to its potential monetary worth. But worse than the enquiry has been the reaction from people when they find out that I did it for free, just to get my by-line. For free. What kind of cosmic loser works for free they seem to want to ask. They can't hide their disappointment and in that inability they rip away my sense of achievement. And when you rip away my sense of achievement I go back to being that middle aged bloke who hasn't achieved his goals and has no prospect of doing so. I become depressed. Or low, to be accurate.

I can't write too much about work but it isn't helping. It's a tough environment if you're feeling vulnerable. It's indescribably difficult if you have no confidence in yourself. I find myself letting the 'banter' get to me far too much far too often lately. Things that I laughed off before now cause me a blush-inducing mortification or they flat out hurt me and I stew and sulk. I turn up filled with a steely determination not to take anything too seriously, not to analyse everything that is said, but half an hour later I'm breaking my own balls wondering why nobody takes me seriousy. Why I can't get genuine respect from any of them. Or at least the ones I've told myself are inportant to me. But it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more I stew and sulk the more I come across as a childish cunt, and not the sort of man it's possible to take seriously. Disability plays a part in all of this, both in terms of how I am viewed at work and how I view myself. Some of them don't see me at all, which is a whole new problem.

I'm going back in tomorrow (Thursday) and I'd be lying if I said I'm not anxious about it. Will I be able to keep my shit together and just get through a day's work without any drama? Fucking unlikely if my recent form is anything to go by. The most concerning thing about tomorrow for me should be Saints' Super League semi-final against Warrington. When I'm well a sudden death fixture like this is the be all and end all of my day and of my week. But it's hardly registered because I'm so obviously not well. It's obvious to me, anyway. My mind is too busy with all the anxiety and negativity crammed inside it. I have no clue how I managed to write the preview of the game for Redvee. There's probably a degree of being in auto-pilot about my rugby writing which I hope doesn't show too much.

I've looked into counselling but in my experience the effect of that kind of treatment is that I reach a point where I feel embarrassed to be there, as if it is one person or problem that has put me there rather than an accumulation of things. The shame turns to anger and resentment at which point I tend to shake myself out of the slump. But though it works in the short term it's just crack-papering, burying my head in the sand and pretending that since the anger has perked me up then I don't have deeper lying emotional issues.

I think it's fair to say that tomorrow could be interesting.....

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

London - Rice, Wonka, Trump

It seems like a different age now because of the small novel I have written about the Paralympics, but we were in London for Emma's birthday at the start of September. We'd wanted to do something Sherlock Holmes related, a murder mystery or something, but as with everything except jam tarts and aspirin it was not accessible for wheelchair users. So instead we settled upon a fantasy-themed treasure hunt. A fictional queen would text us clues which, when followed, would lead us to something as yet unidentified. It seemed like an interesting way to see more of the city and for a pie and chips northern scumbag such as myself it is still the case that I see something new every time I go there.

The treasure hunt was set for Sunday but we rarely make a 400-odd mile round trip on the same day, or even for the sake of one night. We like to make a weekend of it. What else am I going to spend my money on? Getting married? Don't get me started. Shoes? With feet like mine? Mind numbing football simulation games over which control by the user is one of the greatest myths of the modern world? No, none of these things. Weekends away and holidays. And pies, lager and rugby league tickets. That's it.

We drove down early Saturday morning and stayed again at Tunes Hotel in Canary Wharf. It is about as cheap and cheerful as accommodation gets in the capital and, conveniently, is situated less than a minute's walk from a large Wetherspoons. So that was breakfast sorted. But here's what I don't like about Tunes. They don't provide you with a kettle and tea bags in your room. What kind of outrage is that? I mean, who doesn't, after a raucous night on the ale in London's character-filled watering holes, want to come back to the hotel and have a brew? It's more important than sex. And it lasts longer.

The room isn't ready when we arrive at around 1.30pm but we had anticipated that. We leave the bags in the car in the conveniently placed disabled car park and get on it straight away. The plan is to try and replicate our visit to St Paul's Cathedral in June when we were in London for the Bruce Springsteen gig. You can sit in the rooftop bar of the shopping centre across the road from where you get a brilliant aerial view of St Paul's as well as The Shard, The Gherkin and other moderately famous London landmarks. We take the DLR from West India Quay, which again is only a few minutes from Tunes at Canary Wharf, and get off at Bank. Last time we were at Bank we were enlightened to learn that they lock all of the lifts at the weekend and that if you are unable to use stairs you have to talk to someone through an intercom to get assistance to get up to street level. As if disabled people, Superhumans that they are with their jam tarts and their aspirin, don't need to get about the place at the weekend. The truth is that these sorts of attitudes make me want to gun everyone down in some kind of Falling Down-type episode, but you have to grin and bear it if you are going to get to where you need to be. On this occasion there is a member of station staff talking to another customer outside the locked gates, so we are at least spared the intercom fiasco and instead just need to wait for him to finish his conversation.

We arrive at the shopping centre to find a long queue at the lift. Some rich, probably famous, absolute bastard has hired the rooftop bar out for the afternoon and so it is tickets only. The queue is populated by well dressed, self-important bellends who may or may not be cast members from Made In Chelsea or some such other loose stool water television. The function is on until 4.00 and it is not even 3.00 when we arrive. So we abandon the idea of the rooftop bar and St Paul's Cathedral and head instead towards the Lord Raglan pub just outside the Museum Of London. For the record, the view of St Paul's is supposed to look something like this;

It's beginning to rain which is a bore, but you rarely get wet in the pub. We have been here before, when we visited the museum with Emma's mum. It's a lot less busy today than it was that day, so we eat lunch (chips and a fish the size of Flipper) and start the task of getting wretchedly drunk while Jeff Stelling reports on unimportant Football League games in the background. On our last visit going to the toilet was the kind of challenge that Anneka Rice would baulk at due to the number of people sat a table directly in front of the door, but today the only obstacle is the ignoramus barman who decides that his royal arse is too precious for the regular gents toilets. Still, I ask, why are disabled toilets separate from either the gents or the ladies anyway? Why isn't there an accessible toilet in the gents or the ladies? Is 'disabled' a third gender? Look, we're either Superhuman or we're undateable. Make your fucking mind up. Of course, the truth is that we are neither of these things.

Emma's done a bit of Googling over lunch, and worked out that there are a few pubs in the area which might be of interest. The first of these is The Viaduct, which sits just by the Old Bailey. If it were in the middle of Thatto Heath Road you would probably think it a bit of a dive but then if Buckingham Palace were in the middle of Thatto Heath Road it would likely lose something. The important thing about The Viaduct is that it has character. It's location suggests that many a legal mover and shaker has popped in here for a pint before helping decide some of the more notable cases in British legal history. In that regard it is similar to the Red Lion in Westminster, which you will find just around the corner from the Houses Of Parliament, and where apparently our nation's finest sleazemongers (MPs) quench their thirst after a hard day shafting poor people.

At the Viaduct we meet a couple from Melbourne and get talking, about sport mostly. The bloke tells me he is a Leeds United fan and therefore a Leeds Rhinos fan, and freely admits that he chose this route because Leeds United were fairly handy at the time that he first started watching English football. Now he's stuck with them, one of the biggest basket case football clubs in all of Europe. They live in London at the moment, but his visa runs out next year and so they will need to make a decision about whether to do something about that and try to stay, or else move back to Melbourne. To those of us who have had 40 years of English winters it seems a bit of a no brainer, but they explain that there is far more going in London than there is in Melbourne. I suggest they split their time between the two, obviously spending our winters in the Melbourne sunshine, but I get the feeling that finance might be an issue for them there. If she hadn't bought so many pairs of shoes.....

The Old Bell Tavern isn't exactly the most accessible pub I've ever visited. It's flat at the entrance and there is a seating area just there as you go in, but after a couple of minutes, and bearing in mind that we had been pelted with rain on the walk over from The Viaduct, it's too cold to stay so close to the door which is opening more often and more annoyingly than Donald Trump's mouth. We are going to have to go up to the next level but that means negotiating a fairly sizeable step, made more interesting by the fact that someone has left a sandwich board advertising not very good 'bargains' on drinks at the bottom of the step. We can't move it, so we have to work around it, which is made even more difficult by the fact that we have had a few. But we get there and we are far more comfortable as a result. Again this place is not pretty but you sense its history and the fact that it probably hasn't changed all that much through the years. You can imagine men carrying canes and wearing absurdly tall hats converging here to drink brewed urine strong enough to stun a killer whale.

At our next stop even more so, as some fine gentleman have decided to crank up the authenticity by dressing up as Old Victorian gentleman in The Cheshire Cheese (it's really called that). Even to the point of wearing the most unconvincing fake sideburns. Facial hair hasn't been that obviously false since the last Bet Victor advert. One is wearing a loud pink jacket which makes him look like Willie Wonka, which seems fitting in the week that Gene Wilder had passed away. You might be more of a Blazing Saddles person or a fuzzy-wuzzy was a woman person, but I think most people of a certain age will agree that Wilder's incarnation of Wonka is one of the all-time classic children's movie performances. If you are not convinced then watch the fuck-awful remake with self-proclaimed world's greatest actor and it turns out rather dodgy character Johnny Depp. You'll really appreciate Wilder's work once you have seen Depp's efforts in the role.

The Victorian gentlemen seem to like walking around The Cheshire Cheese wishing everyone good evening. Everything about The Cheshire Cheese seems small. We'd only noticed it because its name is written on a lamp outside the front door. The front of the building is just black, as if it is an old disused bookshop or something, and there is no lettering on it to indicate the name of the place except for on the lamp outside. Emma spots this, otherwise we might well have spent the rest of our evening either looking for it or looking for an alternative. There aren't any seats at any of the tables so Emma sits on a small bench at the far end of the pub, just before it opens out into a hugely inaccessible area down a couple of stairs. We are told we are drinking lager but it seems suspiciously real ale-ish to me. Which is ok. I've only ordered a half which I can handle, even if I will never be one of those people who drinks all kinds of European shite at CAMRA pubs.

We go out into the rainy night intending to catch the number 17 bus back towards London Bridge so that we can visit the Thameside Inn. Yet we wait, and we wait, and we wait, and we get wetter, and wetter and wetter until haddock's bathing costumes seem dry by comparison. It takes fully half an hour for the number 17 bus to arrive, this despite the fact that several number 23's, number 4s, number 11s and number every-fucking-thing-else's have passed us. When we get to London Bridge Emma has lost her zest for the whole thing and we decide to head back, ducking in to Wetherspoons for a final drink (which I can't finish, I'm so bloated, wet and knackered), and to see if we can get a cup of tea to take away to our tea-less outrage hotel. We do, but it's complicated given that Emma still has to get the bags out of the car so we can check in properly, half cut though we are. She has to make at least two trips, which if nothing else shows the importance of a post-binge, late night cuppa.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Little Mix, Sand Men And A Fat Lad From Southampton

We start this entry with a false start. Ukraine's Roman Pavlyk is first out of the blocks and first out of the final of the men's T36 100m as he is deemed to have jumped the gun. On closer inspection it appears that Malaysia's multiply named Mohamed Ridzuan Mohamed Puzi might have twitched first. So of course he surges to victory and claims a Paralympic record into the bargain. Great Britain's Graeme Ballard can only manage a podium-dodging fifth place.

Next on the track is Paralympic golden girl and very loud Yorkshire lass Hannah Cockroft. She's going in the women's T34 100m final which is a surprise to me because I'd always assumed she was a T53 or T54 athlete. The reason she's a T34 is that she has cerebral palsy as opposed to the kind of bog standard spinal problems suffered by malingerers like me. All of which is bad news for the other T34 girls who are left in Hannah's wake on her way to a third Paralympic gold medal of her career. There'd be two more on the way despite the organisers' dastardly plot in removing the 200m from the women's T34 programme and thus rendering Hannah unable to defend the title she won in London.

Cockroft is followed home by 15 year-old Kare Adenegan who claims the silver medal for Great Britain. The pair are interviewed together where Cockroft reveals her quirky habit of naming her chairs, which raises questions for me about whether she might have too many. Poignantly, she has named her Rio 2016 100m chair 'Tink' after a friend of hers who had been suffering from cystic fibrosis and who passed away in early 2015.

Toby Gold doesn't quite live up to his name in the men's T33 100m final, taking silver behind Kuwait's Ahmad Almutairi. Great Britain's Andrew Small takes the bronze. Gold is in no way disappointed with silver, declaring himself very happy indeed with a medal in what is his first Paralympics. Gold's father is Brazilian so it's all made extra special for him by the presence of several of his family members in Rio. Kind of like that time I won the Booker Prize when it was hosted at Thatto Heath Labour Club.

Richard Whitehead was one of the bigger personalities of London 2012 and he's in action now in the heats of the men's T42 200m. There's the usual level of posturing from Whitehead which frankly never quite convinces me. It always seems that the gun-flashing and the hollering are aimed as much at convincing himself of his own legend as anyone else. Perhaps he's got it right and that the way to persuade everyone that you are a faultless specimen of masculinity is to just keep saying it with a straight face. Of course it helps if you keep picking up gold medals. I could learn from him I suppose, though I fear I no more have it in me to go around telling everyone how great I look than I do to win the men's T42 200m. I'm still seeing Rocky Dennis in the mirror.

Also going for Great Britain is Dave Henson who, in case you missed it being announced on every television news bulletin since February, has made it to Rio after enjoying success in the Invictus Games. He struggles a little bit in his heat, just grabbing the third automatic qualification after running so far out of his lane he was almost in Argentina. However, since he ran further by moving into the lane outside him and did not impede the Sri Lankan athlete occupying that territory there is no question of any disqualification. In stark contrast to the absolute conviction of Whitehead Henson is self deprecating in his interview, calling himself a fat lad from Southampton. You'll have seen on these pages that I enjoy humour at one's own expense as much as anyone but I can't help thinking that Henson's lowly opinion of his athletic ability does something to devalue his achievement and by extension parasport as a whole.

Doubling the distance covered by Whitehead and Henson are the men's T53 athletes as their 400m heats get under way. Hot favourite is Canada's Brent Lakatos who enjoys a comfortable win. GB long jumper, parahoney, tv analyst and Mrs Lakatos Stef Reid reckons hubby isn't really trying that hard which seems ominous for the rest of the field. Great Britain's Mickey Bushell can unfortunately stop worrying about him as he finishes fifth in Lakatos' heat, but there's better news for Mo Jomni who is bumped from fifth to fourth in his heat, enough to see him qualify after Korea's Yoo Byung Hoon is disqualified. Josh George, who you may remember being publicly harangued for being barged into by an able bodied bastard during the London Marathon a couple of years ago, is out of contention having been disqualified. He doesn't seem to have much luck when he is on television.

Finally in the stadium Great Britain's Polly Maton finishes second in her heat to reach the final of the women's T47 100m, while we see one single throw in the women's F37 javelin as Brazil's Shirlene Coelho pulls off a popular home victory.

And so, if you're still with me, to the swimming pool. The women's S6 50m freestyle is billed by Channel Four's not at all biased coverage team as Ellie vs Ellie, as London 2012 superstar Ellie Simmonds goes up against 15 year-old upstart Ellie Robinson. Robinson's pre-race entrance has become one of the most talked about things of the whole games so far, but as she confidently breezes in with her hood almost completely covering her entire person I can't help but think of the sand people from the Star Wars movies. The force is strangely absent from both Ellies, however, as neither make it on to the medal podium. Ukraine's Yelyzeveta Moreshko leads home her compatriot Viktoria Savtsova. At the post-race interview, shown hours later as a result of Channel Four's by now obligatory venue-flitting, Robinson is asked for her thoughts on receiving a tweet from Little Mix. She could not have appeared more disinterested if she has received a telegraph from Peter Sutcliffe. Which is just ungrateful as far as I'm concerned. I'd love a tweet from Little Mix. So long as Jonathan Ross is pronouncing the word 'tweet'.

In the men's event Great Britain's Andrew Mullen just misses out on a medal after he finishes fourth behind USA's Roy Perkins, China's He Shiwei and Daniel Dias of Brazil.

There's better news for Alice Tai in the women's S10 100m backstroke as she grabs a bronze medal behind Australia's Sophie Pascoe and the wonderfully named Hungarian Bianka Pap. Again displaying their cutting edge analysis and insight skills Channel Four spend almost the entirety of their interview with Tai discussing what level of japery she might be getting up to in the Paralympic village with room-mate Robinson. All of which seems a little bit disrespectful.

Following on from Robinson's defeat in the pool the Ukrainians continue to torture the British as a 2-1 defeat in the 7-a-side football leaves our boys with no chance of progressing to the next stage of the tournament. Channel Four show something in the region of three minutes of this, which is about half the time they have spent talking about it and dazzling us with their poxy Lexi graphics.

Much more like it is their edit of the GB Women's wheelchair basketball clash with Germany. It's a shorter edit than previously seen when the German men met the USA, but there is a heavy focus on what turns out to be an exciting fourth quarter. By the end, our girls have pulled of an historic 50-45 win, a first ever victory over the Germans at a major international tournament. Helen Freeman is sublime, as ever, and it may just be that after many years of toil the Great Britain women's team have finally arrived as a realistic medal contender.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Paralympics 2016 - Tantrums, Tatyana and A Fast Clegg

Four years ago in London paracyclist Jody Cundy threw the tantrum to end all tantrums, the wobbliest of wobblies after the C4/5 1000m time trial. His starting gate had malfunctioned causing him to slip slightly, which at this level of the sport is more than enough to leave your chances of winning in ruins. The officials refused to let Cundy restart the race at which point he began turning the air blue and throwing various liquid containers about the place. Not the most mature response, perhaps, but understandable given the enormity of a home Paralympics and the injustice he felt at missing out on a proper opportunity to compete.

Well now he’s back at the Paralympics for another crack at the same event. He waits in the wings as GB team-mate Jon-Alan Butterworth takes the lead with his ride before being pushed down into bronze medal position firstly by Spain’s Alfonso Cabello Llamas and then by Slovakia’s Jozef Metelka. Inconveniently, if Cundy is to secure victory now it will push Butterworth out of the medals. But Cundy has a score to settle, a past to redeem, so he tears around the track to claim a new Paralympic record and so carry off his third career Paralympic gold, adding to those he won in Beijing before his London mishap.

Since I’m still playing catch-up (by the way, my Sky+ planner became so stuffed with Paralympic broadcasts that it began deleting things to make room for them all, much to Emma’s absolute disgust) I haven’t had chance to report a British gold medal in the athletics stadium as yet. That’s all about to change now as Georgie Hermitage, having equalled the world record in her T37 100m heat, claims victory in the final. She has only been classified as a parasport athlete since 2012, making her debut the following year. As a teenager she resisted classification and became disillusioned with athletics when she began to struggle to compete with her peers. The same peers who did not have to deal with cerebral palsy. She’s understandably emotional in her interview.

I’ll spare you the clunking metaphors about London buses and just let you know that there are three British athletes in the women’s T38 100m final. Two of them make it to the podium as Sophie Hahn wins the gold while multiple sclerosis sufferer Kadeena Cox (the one who if you remember will also compete in the velodrome at Rio 2016) earns a bronze medal. Their joint interview consists of what the cook kids are now calling ‘bantz’ about the prospect of Cox one day matching and even surpassing the achievement of new Paralympic champion Hahn. Cox says she will, and you would be a fool to disbelieve her until you consider the fact that at just 19, Hahn is six years Cox’s junior. There seems every prospect that she will find herself atop the podium again in the future.

You’re probably as sick as I am of all the switching between sports that Channel Four engage in, so I’m having no more truck with it. We’re going to stick with the athletics for now and we’ll round up the swimming a little later on. If that’s ok with you? If not you can always go back to reading endless tweets on your timeline about Jeremy Corbyn. It’s your call. For now we have the small matter of Libby Clegg going in the final of the T11 100m. In my last column I described how Clegg and her guide runner Chris Clarke had been disqualified and unfathomably reinstated after suggestions that Clarke had been running too far ahead of Clegg and effectively dragging the partially sighted athlete down the track. Once she is on the start line for the big one it’s a coronation (providing Clarke can stay within a safe distance of her) as she romps to the title in a time of 11.96, five one hundredths of a second outside her own world record which she set in that controversy-soaked semi-final. Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard is all about the hyphens.

It’s Clegg’s first gold medal after picking up the silver in the T12 category in both Beijing and London. Brilliantly, Clarke quips that he is just John Terry, turning up in full kit to claim the rewards when he has had absolutely nothing to do with the win.

Also sprinting over 100m are the women’s T54 class and the men’s T53, featuring Mickey Bushell. Tatyana McFadden is the more recognisable name in the former event having already claimed three gold medals at London 2012 and ten medals overall in a collection which began with a bronze in Athens in 2004. Regular readers will know that I don’t like to focus on the life stories of Paralympians, and that it’s more about what they achieve in competition for me. But it would be remiss not to point out to anyone who is not aware that McFadden was abandoned by her mother in Leningrad in 1989. Now Russia is Russia, especially at the end of the cold war and all of that, but I can’t help but be slightly sickened by the idea that a child should be abandoned seemingly because she suffers from spina bifida. Something to think about next time I am stuck behind my desk at the office feeling utterly defeated.

Happily McFadden is a special athlete, and proves it here by winning a silver medal to add to her impressive haul. China’s Liu Wenjun takes gold and I’m expecting the fiercely competitive McFadden to be somewhat disappointed. Yet she claims not to be, even declaring herself happy at one point. She does, however, make reference to having suffered from a cold in recent days which sounds like a bit of an excuse. After all, if you can overcome everything she has in her time then a bit of a sniffle isn’t going to get in your way.

We’ve seen what Bushell has had to deal with to get into the men’s T53 final. The race is one barrier too many for him to pass through as he finishes down in a disappointing sixth place while the honours are taken by Canada’s Brent Lakatos, husband of long jumper and Graeme Fowler favourite Stef Reid. Bushell will no doubt be feeling a little perturbed by his inability to claim a medal but when he reflects on where he could have been had things turned out differently for him he might consider that he has achieved something very special all the same. It isn’t just about competing, I know that. But it isn’t life or death either.

The main event on the track is the men’s T44 100m final featuring Paralympic superstar Jonnie Peacock. He defends the title he won in London four years ago, finishing ahead of the strangely charismatic New Zealander Liam Malone who declares himself absolutely exhausted and still suffering from jet-lag as he yawns through his post-race interview. For his part, Peacock is infuriatingly polite and nice about everyone and everything, proving that he has the personality to match his outstanding talent. I fucking hate him.

Ok, so we can round up the swimming now. Great British legend Sascha Kindred can only finish sixth in the final of the men’s S6 50m butterfly as the Chinese swimmers complete a 1-2-3, but there is better news in the women’s race where the prodigious Ellie Robinson wins the gold and a Paralympic record into the bargain. There’s also a bronze for Susie Rodgers in the S7 50m freestyle as she finishes behind USA’s McKenzie Coan and Germany’s Denise Grahl. Rodgers then gives the first of what will be a series of bonkers post-race interviews which involve a lot of arm-waving and more enthusiasm than this writer can stand to look at for more than about 20 seconds.

Still, at least she kept her language clean and didn’t throw any bottles.

Paralympics 2016 - Just Like Watching Southampton

I left you on the kind of cliff-hanger that would make the writers of 24 green with envy. Libby Clegg had just claimed a world record in qualifying for the final of the T11 100m. However, her world is about to be rocked by news that she has been disqualified. It is alleged that her guide runner, Chris Clarke, was too far ahead of her during the race and could therefore be seen to be dragging Clegg as opposed to the British athlete tearing down the track under her own steam.

It’s looked at from every angle and discussed to death by Channel Four’s army of presenters and pundits. Of course, they have a lot of time to do this because they don’t seem all that concerned with showing too much of the live action. Olympic 400m bronze medallist from Sydney 2000 Katherine Merry is one such expert, and she is convinced that there was more than a step of distance between Clarke and Clegg at various points during the race, and that even though Clegg crossed the line before her guide runner there had still been a violation worthy of disqualification. None of which is very patriotic of her, even if it was an honest opinion. Colin Kaepernick would approve of the stance but there would likely have been a lot of British people shouting abuse at their television at that point.

Despite the evidence before Merry’s eyes the GB team lodge an official protest, leading to an anxious wait for Clegg and Clarke to see if they will be allowed to run in the final. Even should they be able to do so there are better ways to prepare for a major final than sitting around riddled with angst waiting to find out if your dreams of the last four years are about to shatter. Eventually, and before Channel Four can shoe-horn another commercial break into the discussion, the news arrives that Clegg has been reinstated and will get her chance after all. Sighs of relief all around, then, except perhaps for Merry who, while she will no doubt be pleased to see a British athlete progress to another final, might privately consider that the decision has made her look like she was talking absolute bobbins in her initial analysis. But she wasn’t. There was more than a step between Clarke and Clegg at times and although I don’t understand the rules of T11 sprinting any more than the next man, I can’t help but feel a little sceptical about the outcome of the appeal.

Exhaling deeply we move across to the basketball court where Great Britain’s men are taking on Iran in their second group game. We join it with around three minutes remaining in the third quarter and with GB well ahead. Curiously, Dan Johnson keeps pronouncing the name of the GB coach Haj Bhania as Ba-har-nia. When I was coached by him at under 23 level (don’t worry, we’re not going there again) his name was pronounced Barn-ya. Or so we thought. Frankly I called him all sorts of names none of which were pronounced Barn-ya. At the end of the third quarter, and with GB well ahead of an Iranian team coming in off the back of a fine victory over Germany, we are taken away to the Judo hall. We return with 45 seconds left in the fourth quarter to see GB round off an 82-62 victory to maintain their unbeaten start to the tournament. Irrespective of my bitterness Bhania is doing a fine job now by the looks of things, and this team could go an awful long way. It’s just a shame that we look set to continue to see very little of their journey on the main channels and that what is probably the most exciting disability sport out there is forever being shunted online.

I’m pleasantly surprised by the edit of the Germany v USA game we are treated to following GB’s win and Gaz Choudry’s impossibly bland interview. It’s a proper highlights package, about the length of your average Southampton edit on Match Of The Day. And it’s chronologically ordered so that you can properly follow the narrative of the game. That sounds obvious but I wouldn’t have put it past Channel Four to show us the bits they like best in whatever order pleased them. They haven’t seemed interested in the sporting story to this point, focusing more on the spectacle and the ‘look what this lot can do’ aspect of the game. Mike Carlson’s commentary is a good deal more bearable than that of the American chap on the online coverage, with his trifectives, his and-ones and his charity stripe. It’s a good game too, until the USA pull away late to complete a 77-52 success. Matt Scott catches the eye for the Americans. He was breaking into the USA team at around the time I started to think about not playing anymore, so he’s been around a while. He spends a lot more time on the bench than he would do if I was coaching him but when he plays he proves over and over again what a special talent he is. I like the smaller players, the guards. It’s easy to score lay-ups from under the basket if you are a 6 foot lump with a minor disability. The things Scott does are special and make the game worth watching.

Finally for this instalment we are with Jack Hunter-Spivey and his Class 5 table tennis encounter with Germany’s Valentin Baus. Jack is a Liverpool lad, brought up in Anfield and sports a red and black Mohawk. He’s a little on the heavy side for an athlete. In fact, he’s heavier than me and I have been retired from disability sport for 10 years. And he’s nearly 20 years younger than me. We join the match with him 2-0 down in a best of five and when Baus duly takes the third game to complete his win it’s clear that Hunter-Pivey is going to be up against it if he wants to make it to the next stage of the competition. Not that he is in any way downhearted by his loss, offering the post-match interview usually reserved for British Olympic swimmers about being happy to be there and how he has dreamed of being a Paralympian since he was a little boy. Confusingly, he then goes off on a tangent with a mortifyingly strained wrestling analogy.
In sporting parlance, young Jack is a ‘character’.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Paralympics 2016 - Cheating Death And Parahoneys

Look I know I’m behind. I don’t need you to tell me this. But you try sifting your way through three lengthy Paralympic broadcasts a day, all the while making notes on your phone but making sure that you don’t commit the appalling sin of missing Only Connect. There isn’t much time left to write them all up. But we’ll press on, eh?

Jonathan Fox, last seen reeling from his defeat in the S7 100m backstroke, goes in the heats of the 50m and breezes through in first place, but in the women’s event Susie Rodgers has a nervous wait to see if she has made it through to the final after finishing second in her heat. Unlike in many other disciplines qualification is not decided by finishing positions but by the fastest times across all the heats. As it turns out she makes it through, which is just as well given the tendency of some of the female swimmers to become slightly emotional.

Outside at the track Mickey Bushell is going in the men’s T53 100m. Bushell has recovered from a urine infection which led to blood poisoning and was, we are told, just 12 hours away from death before pulling off a miraculous recovery. I’ve had water infections. Which is a bit like saying I’ve had strawberries. I’ve had lots of the bloody things. Probably three or four a year at the current rate which continues to perplex the experts charged with keeping me alive. I have also lost people. Friends that is, who have suffered complications from various biff related problems and illnesses. Shit like this gets real. However, I have never had a water infection that has left me 12 hours from death so I can’t imagine the world of pain that Bushell must have been in at that point. For me it’s a week off work, a course of leeches from the GP and back to it. I’m touching wood as I say that. I’ve lost too many friends to be completely certain that I will still be here next week.

Bushell’s presence in Rio is remarkable enough then, and he continues to confound all sense and reason by qualifying for the final in second place home favourite Arisosvaldo Fernandes Silva. As if he hasn’t had enough problems, Bushell reveals that he suffered a flat tyre during his warm-up, and then ANOTHER one when he arrived at the start line. This is a man who shoves ice cubes down the back of adversity. When I suffer a flat tyre it involves a long and boring conversation with a wheelchair mechanic about why they haven’t got ‘the right parts’ to solve the problem. The right parts. It’s a fucking flat tyre. Oh yes but we have to order those tyres in from West Virginia and they are carried here on foot by a small child and oh fucking hell…..

In another heat Mo Jomni can only manage fourth place and so does not make it through to the final. No Mobot there, then.

You’re never far away from a hop to a different sport during Channel Four’s Paralympic coverage and so there’s a 30-second flit to the basketball court where Great Britain’s women are taking on Argentina. They are winning comfortably (finally sealing a whopping 79-20 victory but we don’t actually get to see that happen) so we’re off again, back to the swimming pool where Sascha Kindred goes in the 50m butterfly for S6 athletes. At 38 years of age Kindred is in the twilight of his career but became something of a household name after winning six gold medals across three Paralympics in Sydney, Athens and Beijing. He took as silver in London and although his star is fading somewhat he still manages to qualify in second place behind the splendidly monikered Colombian Nelson Crispin Corzo.

In the womens event Ellie Robinson, 15 year-old Ellie Robinson, storms to victory to book her place in the final. What is it with Paralympians called Ellie. Robinson is short in stature, called Ellie, and extremely fast in the water. Reminds me of someone…..What it actually reminds me of is that advert in which Ms Simmonds tells Jack Whitehall not to come near her in his Speedos. And who can blame her? Speedos are a blemish.

Next there is another gold for GB in the velodrome where Sophie Thornhill and her pilot Helen Scott smash the Paralympic record in the Class B tandem 1000m time trial. It’s a ride which gives them the lead at the expense of the Australians. Always nice to get one over on the Australians whatever the sport. Only the Dutch can stop Scott and Thornill now but they fail to do so as GB secure yet more cycling success. It’s what we do, isn’t it?

The news isn’t so good for T35 100m sprinter Jordan Howe who is disqualified from his heat for a false start. He’s disconsolate and why wouldn’t you be if after four years of hard work you’d lost it all from being a little over eager? In years gone by he would have been given a second chance but the rules are pretty ruthless now. One false move and you are gone. If Howe can take anything from this it is that is probably unlikely to happen to him again. Once bitten….

Stef Reid jumps 5.64 in the women’s T44 long jump. It puts her into the lead but her mark is eclipsed by France’s Marie-Amelie Le Fur who lands a mark of 5.75. She betters that to 5.83 and Reid cannot respond and has to settle for silver. Commentator Katherine Merry tells us how good the competition has been but we’ve been bouncing around between the track, the pool and the velodrome so much that we have only seen four jumps in the entire final. Reid’s interview reveals a distinctly Canadian accent. She’s the wife of Canada’s T54 sprinter Brent Lakatos and moved to Canada at the age of four. She qualifies to represent Great Britain by virtue of her English mother and Scottish father and well, we’ll take medal contending athletes where we can get them. Does anyone think Mo Farah was born in London? Does anyone think he even lives there?

What do we think of the term parahoney? I see it used on Twitter by former Lancashire and England batsman Graeme Fowler (ha, the people I follow….) and I’m not sure what to make of it. It is meant as a compliment to Reid and Fowler adds the caveat that if you are offended you have missed the point. I get where he is coming from but if he has taken a fancy to her (and why not, she’s a bit of alright you’d probably say) why can he not just say that? Why isn’t she just a honey, if indeed the term ‘honey’ is still acceptable in a modern, pc-gone-bonkers type of society? It’s almost as if the inclusion of the prefix ‘para’ devalues her honeydom in some way. Maybe I’m being paranoid. Maybe I myself am revealing my lazy prejudices by pointing this out. Either way it just troubles me a tad that a has-been international cricketer can’t express a liking for a female athlete without making it at least partly about her disability.

We go back to the pool where the one-armed marvel that is Stephanie Slater qualifies in second place for the final of the S8 100m butterfly behind Ukraine’s Kateryna Istomina. We are only offered the last length or two of the 400m S9 heats in both the men’s and women’s event, but we get to see Lewis White finish second behind Italian Federico Morlacchi and the 18-year-old Jonathan Booth get through as runner up to Australia’s Brenden Hall. Amy Marren had two fourth-placed finishes in London 2012 and starts her bid to put that right by winning her heat to make it through to the final of the women’s event.

We finish on the track where Libby Clegg sets a new world record in the T11 100m of 11.92 seconds in qualifying for the final. She’s only the second female athlete ever to go under 12.00 in this classification. How fast is she going to run when she gets there? Will she even get there? As she crosses the line there is no sign yet of the controversy to come which threatens to leave Clegg’s Paralympic bid in tatters.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Paralympics 2016 - Putting The Cat Out

Since the injection of ludicrous amounts of lottery cash Great Britain has become very good at cycling. Peddling knights Sir Chris Hoy and Sir Bradley Wiggins have a cupboard full of Olympic medals between them while others like Victoria Pendleton, Laura Trott and Jason Kenny each have impressive collections also. No surprise then to see that GB are almost as strong in Paralympic cycling, or paracycling as it is known.

First to prove the point is Megan Giglia. She cruises to gold in the women’s 3000m pursuit for C1-C3 athletes. Giglia suffered a stroke which led to a bleed on her brain and left her with paralysis down one side of her body. In the final she catches the USA’s Jamie Whitmore barely half way into the race. This kind of thing is unheard of in the Olympic games, with athletes usually finishing a couple of second apart at the most. There’s a part of me that thinks that Giglia’s margin of victory speaks to a lack of depth in the event. This is the final, don’t forget. Whitmore is the next best athlete in the field and she can’t get near Giglia. Now Giglia could be just that good. Every once in a while an athlete comes around who is so utterly dominant that even those who would consider themselves world class in any other era are made to look ordinary. Michael Johnson and Usain Bolt in athletics, for example, or Michael Jordan in basketball or Muhammad Ali in boxing. I remain firmly sceptical about whether Giglia belongs in that company but she can only beat what is put in front of her. She’s a Paralympic champion. Perhaps we shouldn’t quibble.

However good Giglia is she’s got a long way to go before she matches the achievements of Sarah Storey. She’s going in the women’s C4 300m pursuit final against fellow Brit (I told you we were good at this) Crystal Lane. Her victory lands her a record 12th gold medal, making her the most decorated female Paralympian in British history as she goes past the mark set by Paralympic poster girl turned House Of Lords representative Tanni Grey-Thompson. When I started playing basketball Sarah Storey was called Sarah Bailey and was not a paracyclist but a swimmer. The first five of her gold medals were won in the pool across the 1992 Paralympics in Barcelona and the 1996 event in Atlanta.

I’m not sure how I feel about this business of Paralympic athletes excelling at two disciplines. It has happened occasionally in the Olympic Games recently, witness Rebecca Romero’s conversion from rowing to cycling, but in general success in two sports seems to somehow belong to a bygone era. Except in rugby, where players switch codes as often as they change their pants. Or more often in the case of Sonny Bill Williams. But those two sports do at least require a similar skill set so you can see how a transition can be made. Unless your name is Sam Burgess. On the other hand Cycling and swimming have about as much in common as I do with Tom Hardy. Again I can’t shake the feeling that Storey’s ability to conquer both of these sports at Paralympic level could be seen as indicative of a lack of depth. However, the fact that she has represented England at the Commonwealth Games against non-disabled athletes tells you everything you need to know about Storey’s undoubted class.

Storey’s absence from the pool is more than compensated for in this session. First Ollie Hynd breaks the world record for the 400m freestyle in the S8 category for athletes who have lost one arm or both hands, or else have lower limb restrictions. There's catharsis in that for Hynd who missed out on a medal after finishing fourth in London 2012. His success is followed swiftly in the same event for women, where Stephanie Millward takes the bronze medal behind Australia’s Lakeisha Patterson and Jessica Long of the USA. Following them Harriet Lee takes silver in the women’s 100m breaststroke for SB9 athletes, those with minimal physical impairments. Holland’s Lisa Kruger takes the gold. Lee’s swim is a personal best, which is just about all you can ask for from any athlete competing at this level.

From the pool it is back out to the track where one of the Paralympics’ biggest names is about to enter the fray. Jonnie Peacock was a star of London 2012, winning gold in the men’s T44 100m. T44’s have a single leg amputation below the knee or else they have the ability to walk but with moderately reduced function in one or both legs. Peacock is in the former camp (yes, they all sit around lighting fires and singing boy scout songs) and he’s back to defend his title. He first needs to negotiate the qualification heat, which he does in a time of 10.81 seconds. It’s a Paralympic record but Jonnie’s not getting carried away, declaring himself ‘reasonably happy’ with his run. All of which may seem a little understated but I can relate to it. I’ve never felt more than ‘reasonably happy’ with anything in my life. Mostly I veer between absolutely bloody outraged and utterly defeated. There again, I’ve never broken a Paralympic record. Nor, presumably has Sammi Kingman who we last saw trailing in the wake of China’s Zhou on her way to a world record in qualification for the women’s T53 100m final. The final is a similar story, only Sammi doesn’t trail in second behind Zhou and instead is beaten into a quite medal-less fifth place. Disappointing perhaps, but you get the feeling that Sammi’s time is coming.

Channel 4 are like my cat. They are never happy in one place. Just when you think they have settled on something they are metaphorically waiting by the back door for you to let them outside for a metaphorical dump. And so it is with great swiftness that they again leave the track and drag us back into the pool for the denouement of the Bethany Firth/Jessica Applegate story we started to sit in on yesterday. To recap, Firth won the heat comfortably while Applegate became a little tearful at her performance despite having qualified for the final easily enough. The final goes the way we expect it to for Firth as she takes the gold in this 100m backstroke for S14 athletes with intellectual impairments which cause difficulty assessing patterns or sequences. Happily there is some relief in Applegate’s achievement as she picks up the bronze medal that will hopefully obliterate her earlier disappointment and so spare her from becoming over-emotional in her post-swim interview. Phil Jones will have to save the popcorn for another day.

There’s time to see another swimming medal as Andrew Mullen takes bronze in the 200m freestyle for S5 athletes, those with short stature or paraplegia. He’s beaten by the impressive Brazilian Daniel Dias much to the delight of the Rio crowd, and the American Roy Perkins much to the chagrin of much of the rest of the world. We don’t stick around because the cat wants letting outside again, taking us back to the track where Georgina Hermitage goes in the T37 100m heats. This category is for athletes with coordination impairments, but there seems little wrong with Georgina’s as she romps through to the final by equalling the world record of 13.39. Her start seems suspiciously false but none of the officials seem in any way alarmed by it.

T38 athletes are slightly different again in that they may have cerebral palsy in addition to further coordination problems. In this class Olivia Breen finishes 4th in her 100m heat, but makes it through as a fastest loser after a nervous wait. While Breen is waiting, Sophie Hahn and Kadeena Cox make it through to the final for GB, Hahn by winning the heat in yet another Paralympic record and Cox as the runner-up. Cox is another athlete who excels at two Paralympic sports and will spend large parts of the following day at the velodrome trying to add to GB’s gold rush. Cox explains her decision to compete in two sports in quite sobering terms, telling us that her multiple sclerosis could prevent her from participating in any sport at any level four years from now, so why not cash in now while the going is good? Well, when you put it like that, Kadeena.

We end in the pool and rather shockingly on this day of so much success for British athletes with a surprise defeat. We are all but promised that Jonathan Fox will carry off the gold medal in the men’s 100m for S7 athletes with limited leg function or who are missing a leg or parts of both legs. Fox broke the world record a month ago but it holds no truck with Ukraine’s Ievgenii Bogodaiko who snatches gold by a margin of 0.23 seconds;

“I wasn’t really expecting to come second in that event.” Observes a clearly shaken Fox, although suggestions that he will now turn his attentions to paracycling appear premature.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Paralympics 2016 - Day 1 Continues

In my last look at all things Paralympic I complained about the lack of coverage given to the women's wheelchair basketball game between Great Britain and Canada. Channel 4 go some way to atoning for this by showing far more of the GB Men's opener against Algeria. Well, either they are atoning for it or they are displaying blatant sexism by affording the men more coverage. You pays your money.....

Whatever the gender of the players our commentary team of Ronald MacIntosh and Dan Johnson are having trouble identifying the Algerian players. The scoreboards displayed in the arena do not match the names printed on the backs of the Algerian shirts, in particular the number seven. To avoid anything embarrassing like looking like they don't know what they are doing, MacIntosh and Johnson refer to him only as 'number seven'. This makes him sound like a character in a remake of The Prisoner with Patrick McGoohan. I am not a number. The mix-up is constantly referred to throughout the coverage, which is interrupted midway through the third quarter and resumed with around five minutes to play in the fourth. Unlike the women's game this isn't a close affair. There's no doubt about the outcome so it's slightly less annoying when the coverage is halted. Before we leave GB's 60-odd point victory we learn that Simon Munn is competing in his seventh Paralympics, having been selected for every one since the 1992 event in Barcelona. That's a phenomenal record by anyone's standards. In 1992 I was struggling to find the motivation to turn up for a 12-hour week at Carmel College and was about to meet my first proper girlfriend. There may or may not be a direct correlation between this and my eventual failure to join Munn in a GB squad. But that's pure speculation...

You won't be surprised at this point to learn that Munn is another former team-mate of mine. I don't know if he ever learned my name. He used to call me 'little un' which, while factually difficult to dispute, is not the most respectful of monikers. Yet not as bad as an old coach I had when I moved on to Sheffield (I spread my failure across the north of England) who insisted on calling me Pete. He still did when our paths crossed again years later. I didn't get on all that well with Terry Bywater either when we were together at those 1997 World Junior Championships I might have mentioned once or twice. I realise I could be the common denominator here but he really was a pain in the arse. To be fair to him he was only 14 years old at the time. He's come a long way since then, not only developing into one of GB's key players but also someone able to articulate his and his team's efforts in a highly impressive post-match interview. He also looks older than Munn! He's mature and knowledgable now, whereas if he'd been interviewed after one of our games in Toronto he'd have just quoted Chubby Brown.

Away from my angst and back in Rio we are taken to the stadium where Sammi Kinghorn goes for Great Britain in the women's T53 100m heats. Kinghorn finishes a long way behind the winner but there's no shame in that given that the victorious Chinese athlete smashes the world record. Kinghorn is good enough to qualify for the final in second place in this category for wheelchair users with full use of their arms but with limited or no trunk function. I'd probably be a T53 if I was a track athlete rather than a university administrator and pretend writer.

Following Sammi we get a more extended version of that GB v Canada game in the women's game. It's a reasonable highlights edit which just leaves me wondering why, if they planned on showing it at this point, did they give away the result in the earlier broadcast which featured so little of the action? For those who missed it the Canadians won it 43-36 which represents a more than decent effort by the GB side against the current world champions. It's a losing start but there is much to be optimistic about for the remainder of the group games.

The broadcast finishes with a spot of table tennis as GB's Ashley Facey-Thompson takes on Spaniard Juan Bautista Perez Gonzalez in the SM9 category for athletes with weakness or immobility in one leg. Appearing in his first Paralympics after missing out on selection for London 2012 Facey-Thompson endures a chastening debut as Perez Gonzalez wins it by three games to nil. Yet the 21-year old will no doubt have learned much from this group opener and have gained valuable experience from it.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Paralympics 2016 - The Action Begins

As is my duty, and despite the nauseating dead-rubberdom of the Super League Super 8s, I went to see Saints last night. That, and the fact that I was working all day means that I have been a bit slow to catch up on events at the Paralympic Games in Rio.

Bravely, like a half-stunned elephant, I staggered in from 80 minutes of The Grind at Langtree Park to catch up on the Paralympic action I had recorded from earlier in the day. Turns out there had been three quite lengthy broadcasts throughout Channel 4’s first day of live coverage. I was only able to catch up with one due to my propensity to turn into a pumpkin should I stay up later than midnight on any night during the working week. Nevertheless there was enough in this three hours of coverage to set pulses racing and spleens venting in equal measure.

Now if you read yesterday’s column (September 8) or if you are a regular visitor to Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard you will know that my particular game is or at least was wheelchair basketball. How thrilled I was then despite the post-Saints fug, to sit down to what I thought would be full coverage of the Great Britain Women’s team’s opening group game against world champions Canada. I’d discovered the result of the men’s opener against Algeria on social media (91 to not quite so many, in favour of GB for the record) but had not heard anything about how the women had got on. Ranked fifth in the world, they had it all on to beat a Canadian side which is quite fancied to add the Paraylmpic title to its world crown.

All was well and good for a while. GB started like the proverbial, with Helen Freeman pushing them out into a 4-0 lead. Commentary was provided by Ronald McIntosh, last heard breathlessly chunnering his way through the BBC’s Olympic boxing coverage alongside Richie Woodhall. Here, McIntosh was joined by Dan Johnson, former GB Men’s international and….yes….wait for the clanging sound of names dropping, a former team-mate of mine from my time at Oldham. The duo work quite well together. McIntosh’s enthusiasm and Kamara-like ability to make a pound of lard sound like a royal banquet is embellished by Johnson’s deep knowledge of the game both in terms of the players involved and the tactics and strategies they employ. Some players of his quality (and he was different class) can’t translate that to the ability to provide insight into how it’s done but Johnson is not one of those people.

It was at this point that I started to wonder whether I had developed an inappropriate crush on Freeman, rather like the one I had on Ann Wild when she was the star of the GB Women’s team. I hadn’t had time to quite decide on the matter when to my horror, with Canada having forged a comeback to tie the game at 4-4 with just about four minutes gone, we were whisked back to the studio where Ade Adepitan calmly informed us that we could continue to watch the basketball online but that now it was time for some swimming. By the way, just as an aside I’ve played against Ade many times too, although never with him on the same team. We were once photographed on the front of the Great Britain Wheelchair Basketball Association Handbook, moments before I lifted the ball over his head and executed a barely credible half court dribble and lay-up. No, really.


Anyway Ade is very much a television presenter these days and so for that I am cursing him at this moment. It is not his decision, I know that, but I need someone to vent at for this injustice. You can’t continue watching the basketball online when you are watching a recording some 12 hours later. Given the hours they keep in Rio (four hours behind the UK so this game was taking place at around 1.30 in the afternoon BST) I would argue that the vast majority of people would be unable to follow the whole of the live broadcast on Channel 4. But for those who were, and who may not have access to the internet (do those people still exist?) what is the point of showing them the opening four minutes of a wheelchair basketball game before cutting away to a man talking a lot about swimming for several minutes before we actually see any swimming? This approach takes all of the context away from the game, as if we are just being invited to a demonstration of a whacky, crazy new sport in which the result is academic. It’s the fucking Paralympics! The result is all that matters, the only thing that provides the drama and the only reason that anybody watches sport.

There’s nothing that can be done now. I’m faced with the choice of sticking with whatever it is they are going to show after the swimming or else going to bed. But I’m still a bit all over the place, still wound up about the whole sorry wheelchair basketball affair, and still a little stultified by the lack of a credible three-quarter line at St Helens RLFC. There’s no way I’ll be able to sleep so I plod on and am taken to the stadium for the athletics. In the Olympic Games you have to wait a full week for anyone to take to the track, but there is no messing about in the Paralympics. At 11 days in length it is a much shorter affair than the Olympic Games despite the fact that there are far more medals to be handed out due to a quite bewildering array of classifications within the same basic events. They don’t have a week to play with so they get things under way quick-smart.

The first notable competitor is partially sighted sprinter Libby Clegg, going in the 100m. With her guide runner (whose name escapes me as is the way it should be) she looks to have been ousted at the line by the Chinese athlete Zhou. Yet on further inspection we are informed that the officials have somehow seen fit to rule the race as a dead heat between the two. It’s a heat, a qualifier, for which originally the plan was for only the winner to progress while the runner-up sweated it out to find out if they have secured a fastest loser berth. Yet unable to separate the two of them, that idea is dispensed with by the powers that be and both make it through. We’ll be seeing Libby again then, which if her bland interview is anything to go by is not a pulse racer even if it does prove that just like in the Olympics, Paralympic athletes say a lot without saying much at all in the immediate aftermath of their endeavours.

Commentary, and not interviews, comes from John Rawling. The name will mean something to regular listeners of Five Live’s Fighting Talk programme which airs on Saturday mornings and on which Rawling is a regular panellist. The idea is points for punditry, so guests are asked questions based on the week’s sporting news and get points for coming up with the best answers. Kind of like a sporting QI but it isn’t ruined by Alan Davies. Anyway Rawling proves himself more than adept in the commentary box too, refreshingly treating the action like the sport that it is and not like a year 7 sports day. He’s probably helped by the fact that 100m races like Clegg’s are short enough to swerve the indignity of being pulled off the air mid-way through, and it helps that he’s supported by sound studio analysis from former Olympic 400m man Iwan Thomas and ex-Paralympic athlete Danny Cates.

Also covering 100m are swimmers Bethany Firth and Jessica Applegate, as we are dragged back into the pool by our televisual masters. Firth sails through her heat (if indeed one can sail in a swimming pool, there might be rules against that) while Applegate trails in second and looks more than a little disappointed by it as she gives her thoughts to poolside question poser Rachel Latham. Applegate has the final to look forward to but still seems close to tears following her performance in the heat, all of which feels like shades of Phil Jones doing his level best to make Jessica Ennis-Hill cry following her unsuccessful bid to retain her Olympic heptathlon title just a month or so ago. Latham isn’t really to blame this time in the way that Jones was. He appeared hell-bent on making himself a moment in television history on that occasion, while Latham seems more of an unsuspecting victim as Applegate wells up alarmingly while still maintaining the resolve to promise to do better in the final. I really hope she does or it could get ugly.

When we left the basketball Ade had assured me that we would be returning later, which raised hopes that I might get to see the denouement of what promised to be a cracker between GB and Canada in the Women’s competition. True to his word, they do return, just in time to see the players on both sides shaking hands at the end of the game. There’s no sign of Freeman as Ade informs us that our girls have fallen to what sounds like a valiant 43-36 defeat. The closeness of the game only adds to my fury at having missed out on it but I’ve learned a harsh lesson. I’m not going to get very much of the content I really want from these games simply by recording what is on offer on the Channel 4 broadcasts throughout the working day. The laptop may see some action over the weekend.

Finally we are flitting again, this time to the 7-a-side football where GB are 2-0 down to Brazil with just a few minutes of the game remaining. They pull a goal back but the hosts cling on throughout three minutes of injury time for an opening day win. Again it is disappointing to see so little of the action but at least this time we are offered an opportunity to see how it all turned out in the end, rather than a pointless taster followed by a manic hop across to the track and the pool and back again.

So that’s the first afternoon done and dusted. A pang of terror strikes as I head towards my bed and realise that I still have two broadcasts to catch up on from Thursday’s action, as well as a re-run of Saints’ dirge-fest with Castleford ahead of my weekly scribblings on redvee. Whose idea was it to blog about the Paralympics again?

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Paralympics 2016 - The Opening Salvos

So this is it. The wait is over. Four years on from the last time the general population developed an interest in disability sport they get the chance to do it all over again as the 2016 Paralympic Games get under way in Rio.

The Maracana Stadium played host to the opening ceremony last night (September 7), thus beginning 11 days of intense competition which, if nothing else, will leave those of us with boring, proper jobs trying to avoid being badgered by strangers wanting to know why we are not out there competing also. As if it is the St Helens fucking Parkrun and you just sign up on the day. I knew there was something I had forgotten to do. You know that feeling you get when you leave the house for something important? You know there’s something vital you’ve left on the coffee table or in a drawer in your bedroom, you just can’t put your finger on what it is. I’m glad it’s been cleared up now.

To make things easier for the hard of thinking to understand, let me outline exactly the reasons why I wasn’t pushing around the Maracana waving my union flag with all the other basically professional athletes who have devoted the last four years of their lives or longer to it……(hint).

Firstly, I’m 40. This is no barrier in itself. I’m sure there are many athletes older than I am in sports like archery, shooting, boccia and equestrian. But I have only ever played wheelchair basketball, a sport in which being 40 is a significant barrier unless you are Simon Munn, who will doubtless continue to be named in the GB Men’s Wheelchair Basketball squad until he’s so old that someone has to push him around on the court during the game. Which is probably exactly how many of you thought wheelchair basketball worked in any case.

So I’m not good enough, we’ve established that. Just like you are not good enough to play for Manchester United or sell out Wembley Arena with your power ballads. I did play for Great Britain at under-23 level but the coach of that team, who is now the coach of the GB Men’s team, decided during the 1997 World Junior Men’s Championships that he would rather have an untrained monkey take to the court than yours truly. At which point the dream died and the apathy for all things GB set in. I’ll be watching their games (or recording them given the time difference and the minor inconvenience that is having to work for a living) but will not be polluting my social media feeds with ‘Go GB’ nonsense. Indeed, I’ll allow myself a small chuckle should they suffer a spate of injuries and punctures which causes them to lose to Iran.

Back at the ranch, Channel Four’s coverage of the opening ceremony was fronted by the always willing and well respected Claire Balding alongside Aussie amputee, funnyman and political rantmeister Adam Hills. They’re a sound combination in as far as they understand between them the two most fundamental issues here which are sport and disability. However, the whole shebang is destroyed by some executive producer’s insistence on turning what should be an adult discussion about a major sporting event into a really bad instalment of Soccer AM. Said excuse for a television show has been doing the same joke since 1994, so to see C4 take leaves from their book with their cringeworthy voice-over audition sketch was particularly galling. In a roundabout sort of way they were trying to educate us about Lexi, the channel’s graphical system which, it says, goes about ‘debunking the often confusing classification that govern Paralympic sport’. Along with the graphics Lexi needs a voice, hence the sketch. Hence my cringing on the couch as if I’ve been forced to watch David Brent’s dance on a constant loop for 13 hours solid.

You’ll have to forgive my disparaging tone about all of this. I’m conflicted. On the one hand I am delighted to see the Paralympics given the amount of coverage that it deserves as a major world class sporting event, but on the other I can’t help but loathe the way that the broadcasters go about it. The whole ‘Superhumans’ hashtag makes my eyes bleed, so reeking is it with the smell of inspiration porn and didn’t they do well. Can we clarify this right now, from the start? These are not superhumans. These are elite athletes who want nothing other than to be given the same respect afforded to their able bodied counterparts. It is not Superhuman to scorch around an athletics track in a wheelchair faster than others who are also using wheelchairs, or to smash a tennis ball perfectly down the line to the bewilderment of your opponent. It’s extraordinary in as far as very few people can do it to this level, and in as far as it takes dizzying amounts of skill, hard work and dedication. But somebody has to win. They're athletes. It’s sport. Can we leave it at that, please?

Before the sport, there’s a show to put on. Even the Olympic Games can’t resist the chance to get their pretentious art on at the opening ceremony, and the Paralympics is no different. It all begins with a short video starring Sir Philip Craven, President of the International Paralympic Committee and one-time wheelchair basketball legend. I have a great deal of respect for Sir Phil. He was one of the best players of his classification that I ever saw in 20 years playing the game (ask Lexi, I can’t even begin to explain it to you here) and he must be a fine administrator to have reached his lofty position. But bugger me if he was chocolate he would devour himself. As the film ends we cut to Sir Phil inside the stadium, atop a large platform accepting the adoration of the crowd. As if he’s fucking Beyonce.

As an introduction we are assured by commentator Krisnan Guru-Murthy that ‘whatever our differences, we all have a heart’. Well, that’s good to know, but for me he goes too far when relaying the creative director’s message that they ‘regard the beach as the ultimate democratic place where everybody is equal’. I’m sorry, but anyone who believes that obviously hasn’t tried to push a wheelchair through wet sand just go for a dip in the sea. Is Copacabana Beach even accessible? I’ve just come back from Nice and I can confirm that the beach there is not. It’s all pebbles, for one thing, and for another it is situated at the bottom of an enormous flight of very steep stairs with no lift and no ramp.

The art of the whole thing passes me by somewhat. I’m barely paying attention until the athletes’ parade starts. This is why we watch opening ceremonies isn’t it, if indeed we do still watch them? To find out how many countries we have never heard of have actually sent teams to the event. Afghanistan are up early and helpfully we are informed that the teams will emerge in Portuguese alphabetical order, with none of the traditional deference afforded to Greece for inventing the Olympic thing in the first place. Krisnan tells us that Afghanistan have never won a Paralympic medal. This seems a fairly shameful stat to me. With all the conflict they have had endure, all the times they have had the living shit bombed out of them by the allied forces, they can’t produce one single champion disabled athlete? It is to be hoped they get something this time around and so make a start on addressing this abysmal record. Mind, with the financial difficulties faced by the IPC just before the games began they may consider themselves lucky to have been able to afford to attend at all.

We get to Bermuda and I spend a moment contemplating whether or not I’ve had that girl carrying their flag. Not really. It’s just something my more ignorant acquaintances used to say when we were teenagers. It became a running joke that I knew every disabled person and that I had engaged in relations with every female disabled person that we encountered. Of course I was no more successful at womanising among the disabled community as I was among the able bodied community. It’s not all about the wheelchair.

We hardly get past the Bs, which by now are being welcomed in by the versatile Alan Partridge-lite presence of Rob Walker on commentary, when Channel 4 commit a dreadful yet entirely predictable sin. They go to a commercial break. Someone has to pay for these television rights. No amount of hysterical ranting about how the BBC should have forked out for the rights to the Paralympics (they had the Olympics, you see, so it follows) is going to change the fact that when it comes to the rights to televised sport the highest bidder gets the gig. Even if it is Dave or Channel 5. In this case it is Channel 4 and they do not consider anyone placed alphabetically between China and Estonia to be worth their time and therefore your time. You could write and complain, but you’re unlikely to unless you’re the kind of person who believes Paralympic sport justifies the blanket coverage afforded to Premier League football. You might be right if you do, but even you only care once every four years so lift your game or shut up, ok?

Returning to the parade, in a brilliant twist the organisers have decided to have each team carry in a piece of a giant jigsaw. On the front of the piece is the name of the country being represented, and on the reverse parts of a giant collage which will eventually, once the parade is complete, contain the image of all of the competing athletes from all of the nations. While this is a fascinating concept I am reliably informed by Partridge Walker that the parade will not be complete until around 1.30am UK time. Remember that boring job of mine? It’s about to get in the way again. No doubt some time after the time of writing this I will get a chance to see how it all turned out in the end, but as I watch I can’t help but imagine that it will look like a giant game of Guess Who? Does he have spectacles? A moustache? What colour hair? Is it Wilbur? Or whatever his name was….

He may be a proper sports commentator with experience of covering football, snooker and Kabbadi (possibly) but that doesn’t stop Walker slipping momentarily into Inspiration Porn Mode at one point during the parade when he declares that it is ‘brilliant to see them all (the athletes, presumably) smiling’, as if they are a class of sick children on holiday to DisneyLand Florida. Remember the sport, Rob, remember the sport. It’s not brilliant to see them all smiling. It’s intensely annoying to see the loud-attired Americans and Australians belching at the camera at every opportunity with their stupid hats and their stupid loud American-Australianism. It’s not even brilliant to see Team GB (you have to call them that otherwise Phil Craven comes around to your house on a Sunday and lectures you on what it is to be a patriot in the 21st century). Time was when I would watch a Paralympic opening ceremony parade and recognise 10 or 20 of the athletes whom I had met down at Stoke Mandeville or on the wheelchair basketball circuit from Barrow to Bristol. Not anymore. I’m so old now that I don’t know any of these faceless people, while the more marketable individuals like David Weir and Ellie Simmons seem strangely absent. I still know two or three lads in the Men’s Wheelchair Basketball squad but to call them friends would be stretching it. Either way they don’t show as far as I can see, and neither does the head coach which if nothing else at least prevents me from throwing my television into the front garden. Ah, those lost years. There’s absolutely no bitterness here.

Walker also takes time to announce to us the ‘wonderful’ news that tennis superstar Rafa Nadal has taken to his Twitter account to wish every member of the Spanish team (Team Spain?, Team Espana? Equipo Espana?) good luck for the games. While it is undoubtedly a nice touch to see one of Spain’s sporting legends egging on those aspiring to follow his lead especially in a society which now seems to constantly resent the success of others (who, me?), ‘wonderful’ is perhaps not the right adjective, not the right note to strike. It’s A Good Thing. A Nice Touch. Nothing more, nothing less. Besides, you may be forgiven for thinking that Rafa might want to spend a bit more time looking after his own game, such has been his Leeds United-like decline over recent years.

Before I hit the sack for the night at something close to midnight UK time, there is one more cruel twist of fate for the athletes to endure. The able bodied community isn’t satisfied unless it is offering some assistance to those with mobility problems, so they have decided that the flags of each nation shall be carried up a large flight of steps where they are held aloft. For that you need someone who is capable enough of doing so. All of which is probably quite practical given that it allows those inside the stadium a better view of the colour and diversity on show. It just nags at me a little that they couldn’t find some way of leaving it all to the crips, and that the able bodied had to geg their way in somewhere. But that’s inclusivity, isn’t it?

And so we are under way, despite all the financial problems, all the rumours of potential disaster, and the absence of the barred Russian dopers. It’s been a spectacular opening despite Channel 4’s best efforts to tamper with it and the action, when it begins on Thursday, should be every bit as exciting as was seen in London in 2012. If you can stomach it, come back to these pages for more sideways glances at the event, by which I mean a sneering, sardonic trawl through the epic tragi-comedy that is my attempts to follow the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Transfer Deadline Day And Rocky Dennis

This past Wednesday was Transfer Deadline Day in the UK. The capitalisation is apt because it has now become the single biggest event in sport if such a thing is to be judged by the levels of hyperbole afforded to it. I can remember when the biggest event in football was the FA Cup final, but that competition has now been rendered so irrelevant that the winning manager cannot even be expected to keep his job for the rest of the day. In fact, Louis Van Gaal was sacked at least partly because of his consistent failure to shine on Transfer Deadline Day.

Of course, the reason that Transfer Deadline Day has overtaken actual sporting events in the public consciousness is television. Its insatiable appetite for bringing you round-the-clock 'news' has turned Transfer Deadline Day into a yellow-themed telethon as a succession of besuited clowns and their absolutely-not-there-for-their-looks companions bellow at the camera like children's television presenters in response to Walsall loaning a left-back from Dagenham. Telethons are at least vindicated by the fact that they almost exclusively exist to raise money for some deserving charity or cause. Transfer Deadline Day benefits nobody but an already bloated pair of television companies and the all-conquering behemoth that is the Premier League which swims around in insulting amounts of cash yet still expects you to hang on its every word, for 24-hours solid twice a year.

None of this disapproval of the concept stopped me from attempting to join in with the joviality on social media. What can I tell you? I'm a conundrum. Or a twat, whichever you prefer. Some time ago I took a photograph of myself. A selfie, leaning out of the car window on the driver's side. Shades on, crap stubble. I posted it on Facebook but it was a bloody joke, because I have a friend who went through a phase of posting this type of car-selfie and I wasn't altogether sure whether he was joking or not. I know, I bantz. Either way, it should not be misconstrued as an attempt at self-promotion. I hate all that. People who carry selfie sticks around just make me want to leave this world for good. Anyway, more on self-promotion later.

For now I want to explain that this 'pose', if you must insist on calling it that, was similar to the standard shots you see of players and managers leaving training grounds on Transfer Deadline Day. Harry Redknapp was the number one exponent of this kind of thing. I'm sure he would just spend the whole day driving in and out of his club's training ground in the knowledge that the idiot press would follow him and ask him to please elaborate on the future of Peter Odemwingie. The similarity between The Redknapp and my own shot inspired me, if that is the right word, to recycle my photograph on social media along with what I thought was a brilliant joke about disability. As a wheelchair user I'm allowed to make jokes about disability, right? Wrong, but I do it anyway. Alongside my recycled car-selfie I wrote that I was just leaving QPR's training ground after completing my medical on Transfer Deadline Day, but that I was worried about failing the medical. I can't walk, ho ho ho.

Lots of people agreed that this was funny in a childish, stupid sort of way. Or at least I thought they had agreed judging from the response it received. Yet I turned up for work the next day and was grilled about the post by my female colleagues in particular. I'd reckoned without the non-football fans who have somehow managed to stay unaware of the enormity of Transfer Deadline Day. They went ahead and accused me of vanity and self-promotion. Of being the type of piss-hat who posts pictures of himself that he has actually posed for in a doomed and quite desperate attempt to get the female population to 'like' it on various social media platforms. All of which works for some people and good luck to them, even if I wish they would fuck the fuck right off with their relentless positivity. I know one guy who is attempting to make a living out of his pure loveliness. He's great and he should inspire me, but he doesn't. He makes me want to stick forks in my eyes.

The point is that self-promotion was not my intention. My only intention was humour. Even down to the minute detail of choosing QPR over any other club because they were most recently managed by Redknapp and were also the club to which Odemwingie drove in a bid to get himself signed without invitation one Transfer Deadline Day, an act that defines desperation and which has assured his place on TDD folklore as well as his interminable lampooning. The idea that my motive was my vanity or that I think anything of myself as a physical entity is beyond risible. When I look in the mirror in the morning I see Rocky Dennis, the boy who suffered from craniodiaphyseal dysplasia and died in 1978 before his 17th birthday. They made a film about his life which starred Cher. It was the weepie to end all weepies and you do not want to put yourself through it if you haven't already. All you need to know, and as you can see from his photograph below, looking like Rocky cannot in any way be considered a plus and is not the sort of thing that would inspire you to start hoiking your image around social media looking for approval.

My malaise has worsened since. While I was sat at my desk contemplating my error in my Rocky-esque fug one of my female colleagues made a derogatory remark about my appearance. It was a joke, and it doesn't even matter what she or anyone else thinks. It's more about what I think, but when you think like I do you don't need people's honesty even if it is offered in jest. And it can be. Just because she was joking doesn't mean she doesn't mean it.

And so that is how Transfer Deadline Day can lead you down a dark path. You just have to be pre-disposed to that kind of thinking in the first place. Jim Fucking White has much to answer for, and not just that appalling yellow tie or the wearing way he bawls down the camera about Grimsby.