Event changed minds about where the boundaries of sport actually lie
ON THE night Michael McKillop won his second gold medal of the Paralympic Games, he caught the eye but struggled to hold it. No fault of his own, you understand, just that night as he was taking his second lap of honour in three nights, the men’s F42 high jump competition was coming to a climax.
Now, F42 will mean nothing to you. It’s one of the weaknesses of the classification system – every event, every athlete herded and penned into a cold letter and number with no hint of what might lie beneath. Unless you’d been tipped off beforehand, you wouldn’t have known that the F42 high jump was confined to single-leg amputees. In less fusty language, it was the one-legged high jump.
Pretty much every day at the Paralympics, you saw something that changed your mind in some small way about where the boundaries of sport actually lie. A blind Brazilian Zicoing his way the length of the five-a-side pitch and leaving the sighted opposition goalkeeper grasping at air. The one-armed Chinese swimmer Yanping Wei only just being pipped for gold in the S8 butterfly. The mind-bending speed and agility of Dutch wheelchair tennis player Esther Vergeer, who only dropped seven games in five matches on her way to her fourth Paralympic title.
But nothing – nothing – matched the one-legged high jump for sheer holy-f**kery. Apologies for the language but honestly, some sights leave you with no choice. One by one, they came to their mark, each of them on crutches. Then, like a scene in some over-the-top preacher movie, they cast the crutches aside and started to pogo their way to the bar – mostly taking it with a somersault but occasionally with a modified Fosbury flop.
Each of them cleared at least one height and the crowd ate it up, every minute of it.
The competition was won by a 27-year-old Fijian called Iliesa Delana. When it became clear his 1.74m jump was going to be enough for gold he took off on his own lap of honour, Fijian flag in one hand, Tiny Tim crutch in the other. It was Fiji’s first ever Paralympic medal.
Yet even as the president and prime minister released statements congratulating Delana and hailing him as an inspiration to all Fijian people, the man himself was recalling that it wasn’t so long ago that he had to walk to training every day.
Disabled sport wasn’t on the radar in Fiji before he came along and no financial backing mean he hadn’t the price of a bus fare. He overcame more than just a missing leg for his medal.
In countless cruel little ways every day in every country, disability is silence. Sometimes it’s the awkward silence of a society that doesn’t know where to look or what to say and sometimes it’s just plain cold silence, brought about because we choose to be interested in other things and other people.