Puffles at the Paralympics

Summary

Crazy dragon bloke takes cuddly toy to Stratford Sports Day

No – really, I took Puffles with me and they allowed us both in! I managed to get hold of a couple of pairs of tickets – one for the London ExCel and one for the Olympics Park. Given my past criticism of all things Olympics, why would I want to? Many reasons. There were two big ones. The first was to get a feel for the spectacle with my own eyes and ears. It’s all very well criticising (or praising) things from afar, but as any journalist will tell you, you get a unique insight when you are ‘on the front line.’ The second was because of Tanni Grey-Thompson. No – really. She was probably the only person who persuaded me prior to the first opening ceremony that London 2012 was going to be anything but a spectacular disaster. Which also reminded me that as a taxpayer it seemed crazy to have spent all of that money only to wish for things to go wrong. Hence why via Puffles I tweeted that I’d be keeping tabs on those sports that were not attracting the publicity and celebrity ‘glamour’. It also became clear through her tweeting that far more was at stake for people with disabilities. It was only when I turned up to my first event at the London ExCel that it really hit home just what she meant.

Getting there

The journey to the London ExCel was fairly straight forward. I went outside of rush hour and it was only when hitting the DLR to the venue did the crowds make themselves felt in a big way. What really struck me with all things security was how G4S were nowhere to be seen. The people who were there in huge numbers were the gamesmakers, volunteers and the police. The presence of the former two took a lot of the tension that is often raised (in my experience) by large numbers of police officers. It’s one thing having two police officers standing next to each other alone, but quite another to have two police officers standing next to two other people with the biggest pink foam gloves pointing the crowds in the right direction. The former two may have big truncheons but they are NOTHING compared to big pink foam gloves! Says the bloke walking past them carrying a big cuddly dragon.

“Welcome to London’s biggest box, owned by foreign places!”

…is the branding on the ExCel. It’s owned by a corporation owned by a far away regime somewhere. (I’m poking fun at the idea of a venue owned by the corporate arm of an authoritarian regime, not making a xenophobic point for the record). They say it’s award-winning but really at the end of the day the venue is a big box that stops people from getting wet. I’ve been there for a couple of events and showcases before – once with the civil service. It’s functional more than anything else – big enough to hold all of the people queuing for stuff and to create temporary arenas for the various events. I’ll save further (more critical) comments about the ExCel for a later post.

At first they were bored but then the crowd roared

We all wanted to go and see the sitting volleyball, but it got full too quickly, so we all ran off to watch the judo instead – not that many of us seemed to have much of a clue about judo. Other than it being one of the martial arts that some kids who I didn’t hang around with at school did, all I knew about it was that it was a martial art. (Stealing a theme from Shappi Khorsandi, respectable children like me went to church and did our violin practice. Children whose parents had less respectable values played football and partook in violent pastimes.) Such good it did me. I now don’t do violin practice, despise religious institutions, have lost faith in football and have an anxiety disorder that in part is rooted in not being able to deal with violence.

Back to judo again, fortunately for me the show began with a full explanation of the rules and what to look out for. This increased the viewing pleasure not just for myself but for everyone else. Why? Because it made it clear what the competitors were trying to do to each other – and (perhaps more importantly) what they were trying to avoid having done to them. It became clear that trying to slam-dunk-da-funk your opponent on their back was the name of the game, but the various tricks of the trade used to avoid having this done quickly made it clear that judo was far more than just about rolling around on the mat. The first few contests – including the strongly supported (but ultimately unlucky)  Sandrine Martinet of France - showed huge variety in tactics and approach. Martinet and the women competitors played out a series of tense closely-fought contests across small areas while the men early on were chasing after each other all over the mats.

“Why is yoo supporting foreign places?!?!”

Actually, that’s what made for an extremely vibrant atmosphere – the French in particular – many of whom either live in London or who had jumped on the Eurostar to make their way here. The rapid turnover of contests – timed to last 5 minutes maximum for each one – meant that a different section of the crowd went wild depending on which country was being represented. China, Japan and Russia had noticeable support in the main crowd, as did a few of the tinpot dictatorships in the expensive seats. (I can hear the stand up comics now: “I think there should be a new rule that those turning up to sit in the posh seats should wear morning dress and behave with decorum! None of this #TeamDaveCam in tracksuit tops nonsense! You’re the Prime Minister!”) Everyone else in the latter seats seemed to sit there motionless and expressionless like the Queen at the ceremonies. Personally I’d rather be in with the crowd going wild than in the posh seats – even if it did mean getting accidentally thwacked over the head by an inflatable thingy that you sometimes see continental Europeans using at sporting events – which can be almost as noisy as vuvuzelas – which were (mercifully) lacking. As for Great Britain’s supporters? We shouted and jumped up and down – lots.

Then Ben Quilter arrived

Unfortunately he’d been knocked off a gold-silver showdown earlier this morning, so ended up having a play-off prior to a contest for bronze. It was here that I suddenly realised the difference a home crowd can make (and why the empty seats at the Olympics was even more of a scandal than the media made out). The atmosphere in the arena was absolutely electric – shaking the temporary stands to the core. Bearing in mind many of these competitors will not have competed in stadia or arenas with such intense support before, I could ‘feel’ just what a difference a crowd can make.

It was the bronze medal bout that really got the crowd going. One of the ways to win in judo is to pin your opponent to the floor on their back for 25 seconds. Ben managed to get his opponent into such a position and the clock started counting – for the whole arena to see. It was a bit like a boxing count only longer and more intense for the competitors and viewers alike. This is because the competitors have to concentrate and give it their all continuously for that extended period. When the time expired the crowd erupted – in a manner far more intense than at any football match I’ve ever been to – and I’ve been to more than a few!

If anything, it was worth heading down there just to see those two contests by Ben – so a BIG THANK YOU to Ben from me for making the journey and visit well worth the effort.

“Don’t make fun of people who are achieving more with no legs than you can with two”

The actor Will Smith tweeted this just before the opening ceremony of the Paralympics. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was referring to the achievements of US archer Matt Studtzman - mindful that the target is 70m away. How many so-called able-bodied people could get anywhere near such a target time after time? Exactly. For those that say “Oh well, with the same amount of training and time commitment I could.” Well, they put in that training and time commitment. You didn’t. If you did, you’d have been competing at the Olympics. But you’re not.

After these games I’d like to think that the media will diversify its sports coverage away from top level football and the circus that surrounds it, towards other sports and competitors. The excitement level can match any a football match that I’ve been to – and I say this as someone who went to see Liverpool vs Man United at Wembley during the early 1990s.

What’s really coming through from the coverage is the barriers that competitors have had to overcome to get to where they are, and what they are achieving. Once you’ve got past the annoying BT and Sainsburys adverts, have a look at this goal by David Clark. He did all of that blind/blindfolded past a sighted goalkeeper. Watching the match, it’s clear how you need to be talented with both feet rather than just the one. Remember England’s persistent problems on who to play on the left-wing post Barnes and Waddle? If professional footballers had trained like Clark, maybe this would not have been a problem.

A change in society on the way?

That remains to be seen. What the Paralympics have done though is demonstrated that the achievements of the competitors are being seen by many in a context that goes far beyond a sporting one. This is because the illnesses, conditions and disabilities that the competitors face are ones they have to live with day-to-day. Prior to the Paralympics my guess is that many people now watching were probably unaware that such competitors were capable of such great achievements. It’s made some of us – myself included – aware of what people can achieve despite the problems they face day-to-day. This inevitably makes the whole thing political – but in this case perhaps rightly so.

It’s utterly depressing that in the run-up to the biggest Paralympics ever that we’ve also seen a huge rise in hate-crimes against disabled people. It’s got to the stage where the Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee Dame Anne Begg (a wheelchair user herself) has had to pull up ministers over the negative portrayal of people receiving state support. There have also been a number of high profile people of impeccable credentials speaking out too – Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson being one of them. (Puffles helped Tanni out with the flying during the opening ceremony – you were just imagining the images of the wires). Despite her profile and sporting achievements, even she gets abuse.

The impact of empathy

Again, this is sort of relates to the ‘change in society’ thing – where there has been genuine local pride around the achievements of competitors both at the Olympics and Paralympics. We can see that in part because the response from local areas hasn’t been this slick publicity operation that you’d expect from a high-powered London PR agency. For whatever reason I can relate more to the competitors at the Games in the more minor sports than any of the others. Perhaps it’s because they don’t get transferred from place-to-place for mega transfer fees but instead move because of similar reasons that the rest of us have to. Perhaps it’s because they use similar facilities that ordinary people use, rather than training inside the golden cages of five-star country parks – magnificent though they might be. Perhaps too they’ve not had the long tidal-wave of ‘colourful’ publicity around their non-sporting lives following the injection of big money TV – Spice Boys anyone?

Legacy?

Inspire a generation they say. For me that depends ultimately on us – the grass roots. The legacy – whatever it will be – cannot be imposed top-down. If it did, we’d still be talking about Live8 from 2005. Remember that? Remember lots of bands scrambling to get onto the billing for all of the publicity? Remember all of the pocketed extra sales? Remember the VIP pit? Have a look at the not-so-crowded bit close to the stage to the bottom left. How is that different to the empty seats at the Olympics? The legacy of Live8? Lots of celebrities got to see lots of top-end bands who made a lot of money from extra record sales while politically, diddly-squat was achieved…or am I being cynical?

What would I want a legacy for London 2012 to be? A society that’s less suspicious and less hostile towards each other. One where people don’t automatically see the worst in each other. One where we’re not in a default mode to screw the other person out of whatever we can get from them.

It’s too much to ask from one sporting event.

So I hope that once everything is over, a few people will be motivated to do positive things for their local areas that they might not otherwise have even thought about doing. Because if a few people can get together to do good stuff, you never know but what they achieve may well be greater than the sum of their parts.

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