London prepares to ‘meet the superhumans’

Two competitors battle it out in wheelchair rugby – otherwise known as ‘murderball’ © Getty Images

Tonight, the Paralympics will begin. Its ‘superhuman’ athletes have overcome severe disability – but do the inspirational stories distract from their achievements in elite sport?

When she woke up on July 7th 2005, Martine Wright had the Olympics on her mind. The day before, London had won its bid to host the 2012 Games, and the 32-year-old had gone out to celebrate. A late night became a late morning; she was in a hurry as she jumped on her rush hour train.

The journey would change Martine’s life forever. A few feet from her seat, a young man named Shehzad Tanweer was carrying a rucksack full of explosives. At Aldgate station, he blew himself up.

The explosion was one of four to rock the capital in 7/7 – the worst terrorist atrocity to hit London. Crushed beneath the wreckage of her train, Martine was lucky to survive: days later, both her legs were amputated.

Today, she is thinking about London 2012 again. This week, the world’s greatest disabled athletes will come to London for the Paralympic Games. And seven years after losing her legs, Martine Wright will be among them – competing for a medal with the women’s sitting volleyball team.

For the next 11 days, spectators will be introduced to a world of rarely-seen sport. State-of-the-art wheelchairs and artificial limbs will add speed to athletics events. Blind athletes will play using ingenious innovations, like the tinkling bells fitted to a goalball. For some viewers, the crashes and collisions of wheelchair rugby – otherwise known as ‘murderball’ – might prove a little too much.

And like Martine Wright, each Paralympic athlete has a unique story to tell. Take Italy’s Alex Zanardi: a successful Formula One driver when his legs were cleanly severed in a horrific crash. Left with just a litre of blood in his body, he had to be resuscitated seven times. Now, he is hoping for Paralympic gold in handbiking.

He joins a steadily growing Paralympic elite. The stars of London 2012 include wheelchair tennis player Esther Vergeer, who has won 465 matches in a row. South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius even holds his own against able-bodied athletes: two weeks ago, the double amputee competed in the Olympics 400m.

Context

When tuning in to the Paralympics this week, many will look first to these stories. The Games, they say, are more about courage and determination than sport. In overcoming adversity and refusing to bow to limitations, all Paralympians are an inspiration – whatever happens in the events.

How patronising, some reply. Paralympians are just like their Olympic counterparts: elite athletes, who have trained tirelessly to make the best of exceptional natural ability. They are not tragic human interest stories. Unless we treat the Paralympics as an elite and unforgiving competition, we are not giving it the respect it deserves.

You Decide

  1. Is it patronising to focus on the ‘inspirational’ backstories of Paralympic athletes?
  2. Can Paralympics help raise the profile of disabled people in wider society?

Activities

  1. Try playing a game of blind football.
  2. Research one inspirational Paralympian, and produce a profile of them with pictures, facts and statistics.

Some People Say...

“The Paralympics will never be as popular as the Olympics.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How high-profile is this year’s Paralympics?
The 2012 Games could be the most successful ever. So far, it is on course to be the first Paralympics to sell out, and big-name athletes such as Oscar Pistorius and Ellie Simmonds are working hard to up the profile of the Games. American broadcaster NBC has extended its coverage due to public demand, and the UK’s Channel 4 is rolling out 150 hours of live programming. It’s being promoted with a cheeky ‘thanks for the warm-up’ ad campaign.
How does that compare to previous years?
It’s a huge improvement. In 1992, the Paralympics were only given a few hours of retrospective coverage on television. Many hope the change will inspire more people to get involved in Paralympic sport.

Word Watch

7/7
The July 7th bombings were co-ordinated attacks that took place in several locations around London. Four Islamist terrorists detonated bombs – three on the London Underground, and one on a crowded bus – within fifty seconds of each other, during rush hour. In all, 56 people – including the four bombers – were killed, and more than 700 injured.
Goalball
A team sport for blind athletes, goalball was developed in 1946 as a means of rehabilitation for men who had been blinded in the second world war. It is played in teams of three, and involves players throwing a ball into their opponent’s goal. All players must wear eye shades, to allow partially sighted players to compete on an equal footing with the blind.
Handbiking
This is a type of cycling, in which competitors pedal with their hands rather than feet. Handcycles usually have one front wheel, with the cyclist sitting between two back wheels and powering the bike with pedals set in front of him or her. The Paralympics will hold a range of different handbiking events, including long and short distance races.
Ellie Simmonds
At the age of just 13, Ellie Simmonds, who has a form of dwarfism called achondroplasia, won gold in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Her achievement made her one of Britain’s most well-known Paralympic athletes, and she’ll be defending her titles in the swimming events of this year’s Games.

Subjects

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