LONDON – The general feeling after the London Olympics was that the excitement was over. The Paralympics would, it was feared, be a damp squib after the games. In fact the Paralympics have attracted large and enthusiastic audiences. The media have given the competitions almost as much coverage as they did to the main sporting events of the Olympics. London has again shown that Britain is capable of organizing another spectacular show.
One reason for this enthusiasm may have been that those, who had been unable to get tickets for the Olympics, found that the process of buying tickets for the Paralympics was easier, quicker and less expensive.
Another was the imaginative opening ceremony. This featured Stephen Hawking, the Cambridge professor of physics, who is paralysed by motor neuron disease and whose voice has to be synthesized, speculating on the origins of the universe, followed by an attempt to replicate the Big Bang. The music and spectacle of the opening ceremony included an ex-soldier who had lost both his lower limbs flying down in the spotlight on a wire from a great height.
The parade of disabled athletes from over 160 countries took time to pass through the stadium, but no one watching could fail to be moved by the sight of so many athletes, many in wheelchairs, who had overcome various disabilities to take part.
The broadcasting of images of the athletes competing in swimming, cycling, track and field and such team sports as wheel-chair basketball aroused much admiration and excitement. The commercial channel, which won the right to televise the events live, however, annoyed some viewers by the frequent interruptions for advertising breaks, often at exciting moments. The BBC had televised the Olympic sporting events without advertising breaks.
Audiences have been somewhat bemused by the different categories into which the competitors have been placed depending on the extent of their disablement. The divisions are necessary in order to ensure fairness in the award of medals, but it has meant that there are many different competitions for the same type of event such as the 100-meter sprint. Sometimes the decision about the extent of an athlete’s disablement can lead to disputes, but these have been relatively few.
The competition for medals has been fierce, but on the whole good-humored and there has been less emphasis on national medal tables. It is a significant achievement for disabled athletes to get to the position when they are able to compete. So many who don’t win medals are rightly applauded for their valiant efforts whether they win or not.
Some journalists have commented on the bravery of the competitors in overcoming their physical handicaps. Others have stressed that it is the persistence and dedication of the participants that should be applauded, rather than their bravery. Disabled people rightly do not want to be patronized. They seek equality wherever possible.
It is “politically correct” to speak, in English or Japanese, of people as “sight impaired” rather than “blind” and “hearing impaired” rather than “deaf.” But we have in Britain a charity called “The Royal Institute for the Blind” and a “Royal Institute for the Deaf.” We, as individuals, may fear that we may be becoming blind or deaf and do not regard these words as demeaning. We only need to use euphemisms for these conditions where the sufferers regard such terms as patronizing.
The Paralympics, apart from being an exciting set of sporting events, highlight the problems that disabled people face in our societies. The disabled still occasionally face unacceptable abuse from the fit and able. On one bus recently my wife saw a case where a Muslim objected to a blind person bringing his guide dog on to the bus. The driver rightly overruled this religious prejudice and insisted that the dog should be allowed on the bus.
Disabled people also face discrimination. Some of this is unavoidable. An employer looking for a new recruit for a job requiring the ability to move quickly or undertake physical activity is unlikely to choose a disabled person who may need special facilities that add to the costs to the employer. But some jobs can be done equally well by a physically handicapped person. In that case physical disabilities should be disregarded.
British regulations require that wheelchair users should have access to public buildings and that there should be toilets adapted for their use. Such facilities are inevitably costly and not all buildings used by the public have yet been adequately adapted.
Public transport should also provide facilities for disabled people. All modern double decker buses in London now have platforms, which can be lowered so that wheelchair users can be accommodated, but it takes time to phase out older types of buses. There are unfortunately only a very few underground stations that can be used easily by wheelchair users. Concert halls and theaters should also be able to accommodate wheelchair users but not all have yet got such facilities.
The Paralympics are a reminder of the multiplicity of physical and mental problems, which can still affect human beings despite the significant advances that have been made in medicine. Some children are still born with physical or mental defects, which cannot be cured. Diseases such as motor neuron or multiple sclerosis can kill or cause irreparable physical damage. Strokes can cause paralysis and brain damage. Alzheimer’s disease is not the only debilitating disease of old age.
In the London Paralympics, ex-servicemen who lost limbs in Iraq or Afghanistan have played quite prominent roles. So did a woman who lost limbs in the terrorist bombing in London, which occurred on the day after Britain was awarded the Olympic Games. British people have thus been reminded of the sacrifices made in the international struggle against terrorism.
The Paralympics should make us all more understanding of and sympathetic for the problems which the disabled face in our societies and cause us to be thankful that so far we have not been seriously and personally affected by such conditions.
Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.