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August 2012

London 2012 Olympic Games

Lee Valley: GB eventually win Olympic gold (Etienne Stott and Tim Baillie) and silver (David Florence and Richard Hounslow) in the C2 canoe slalom

The £31 million investment in a white water course at Lee Valley pays off worldwide. Travelling to the Continent the day after, the French in particular were immensely curious to hear of the races.

Cheering for an eventual gold medal winner (Emilie Fer) in the K1 kayak slalom: partisan French supporters (at the front)


10 September 2012

London 2012 Paralympic Games

Olympic Stadium with first spectators arriving

The Paralympic Games have changed disability sport.

The crowds attending have been immense, the television audience in Britain large and the enthusiasm of people to support the Games striking.

New familiar faces are now in the British consciousness, significantly more famous than any erstwhile ministers of sport.

For the British market at least, sponsors and commercial interests will no longer be able to disregard disability sport and this will put resources behind it.

Global superstars may not yet have been created as unlike the host nation the majority of countries will not have given much television coverage to these Paralympics.

If, though, the broadcasters of China and Russia have had the nous to screen their winners extensively to their large populations (and perhaps they still have about a day left to do it as London's end of Games celebrations start at the time of writing) then these countries might join the host nation at the front of the grid to produce the potential superstars of the next four years. (China, Russia and Great Britain head the medals table and for superstars to emerge you need known competitors from more than one country).

Given the role of the Stoke Mandeville hospital in the formative years of the Games, Britain and its athletes deserve its position at the front of the grid.

So why the enthusiasm for the Paralympic Games in the U.K?

Partly because a much lower number of venue seats than in the Olympics were pre-empted by sponsors and foreign visitors, Britons, and Londoners in particular, seized the opportunity to attend and take possession of their capital city's summer party.

Partly out of curiosity to see how sports modified for or unique to the Paralympics work.

Partly because of a greater sense of identification with paralympians and disability than we previously considered ourselves to have.

Most of the world of elite able-bodied athletes is essentially foreign to us, to be admired but not realistically emulated. Too much natural ability is called for and perhaps too much discipline in directions that might not suit us.

We cannot really imagine ourselves riding a racehorse round Tattenham Corner to win the Derby. We do not have the elite jockey's sense of balance and spatial awareness. Nature has not granted us the right physique. We do not see ourselves half starving for decades to stay on top.

We can, though, imagine ourselves in a racing chair going round a stadium. We would be going at a fifth of the speed but that we would soon realize. Perfect physique is not called for in paralympic sport. Discipline seems to us likely to be focused in fewer directions.

Unaccustomed to success in nearly every aspect of life, unlike some elite able-bodied competitors, paralympic ego seems less overbearing and less tantrum prone when failure or disappointment beckon and so we happily cheer on and encourage the tail end competitor to finish, as to do so is a triumph, too.

Of course, encouraging everyone to finish, whether in Olympic or Paralympic sport is mainly the job of the venue's spectators. It is less seen on television, which is usually in a rush to concentrate on the winning.

Most disability has relatively little to do with sport but Britain has been quite good at taking on ideas about social change and inclusion in recent years and these Paralympics have set the ball of understanding disability running in a direction where it can gain momentum.

David Weir at 1500m ceremony holding up gold medal to crowd