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.

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