Event changed minds about where the boundaries of sport actually lie

Mon, Sep 10, 2012, 01:00

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.

If all the Paralympics did was give a voice to fill that silence, the games wouldn’t have caught on like they did over the past 12 days. Instead, they went one better and filled it with eloquence. That was the beginning and end of their success.

Which isn’t to say that everything was wonderful. It wasn’t. For all Seb Coe’s boasting about selling out the 2.4 million tickets, very few venues outside of the Olympic Stadium and the Aquatic Centre were far beyond half full. The atmosphere was quite drab at times, especially at some of the indoor events like wheelchair basketball and table tennis.

The constant reminders over the PA system that “What you’re watching here, ladies and gentlemen, is elite sport”, got past the point of protesting too much about a day and a half in. A lot of it was elite but some of it very obviously wasn’t. Around 4,200 athletes chased 1,509 medals. In the Olympics last month, just shy of 11,000 athletes competed for 962 medals.

Granted, the numbers are crude and imprecise but in general when there’s a medal for nearly one in three Paralympians as opposed to nearly one in 11 Olympians, it stands to reason that it can’t all be elite.

Then there’s a classification system. Complaints that it is complicated should be ignored. Of course it’s complicated. Sport is complicated, disability is complicated. A system for making disabled sport work is complicated squared.

A more legitimate charge is that it sometimes goes too far in trying to provide a level playing field. The sheer volume of swimming events (148!) was comical, especially when some of them could barely scrape up enough entrants for two semi-finals. After a while, it started to smack of the one thing Paralympic sportspeople hate – a massive sports day where everybody gets a go.

These are early days though and modifications will come. The amount of world records that tumbled over the week across a host of disciplines tells you how seriously Paralympic sport is being taken now. We’re not quite at year zero with it but we’re not very far along either. These little creases and bumps will be ironed out over time.

A lot of hands will be wrung now about what to do with Paralympic sport, declarations made about the eyes that have been opened to disability and the boundaries broken down. But the world spins and the footballers struggle to beat Kazakhstan and London 2012 goes back in its box. I’s just reality. The silence isn’t as deep now, though. For anyone who was there, it can’t be again. Not when a man on one leg can clear a bar his own height. That’s the sort of noise that will echo for quite a while.

Paralympics highlights

THE IRISH PERFORMANCE

Even if they clearly low-balled the original target (five medals, three gold), this was still beyond what Paralympics Ireland were hoping for.

Eight gold, three silver, five bronze across 10 different medallists. They exuded professionalism in just about every sport they entered and will make a very persuasive case when the next round of funding is being given out.

MARK ROHAN

Deserves a category all of his own. Won two gold medals in just about the most taxing event in the whole of the Paralympics and married power with grace all the way through. Deeply impressive individual with a huge future, although handcycling might not be a wide enough canvas for him in time.

THE VELODROME

As a TV sport, track cycling can leave you cold. In the flesh, it’s totally compelling. Even if the relentless rise of the British machine feels a bit contrived – money floods in, medals flow out, failure is not tolerated – you couldn’t but be carried along as the place shook any time one of the home hopes saddled up. A sweaty, feral ball of energy.

POWERLIFTING

Lifter gets wheeled to stage. Lifter hauls him/herself out of wheelchair and on to bench. Gamesmaker takes chair away and places at back of stage.

Lifter takes own limp feet and throws them away from torso as he/she lies back. Gamesmakers either side take bar off rack and place in lifter’s hands. Lifter bench-presses three times own body weight. Gets back in wheelchair, rolls off-stage. Crowd rubs eye.

THE ONE-LEGGED HIGH JUMP.

Obviously. Malachy Clerkin

How the Irish fared: Final Day

DARRAGH McDONALD

Swimming, S6 100m freestyle

Agonisingly close to a second medal . The second fastest qualifier for the final, McDonald finished in a personal best of 1:08.92, just .91 outside of the bronze medal position.

JAMES SCULLY

Swimming, S5 100m freestyle

Also bettered his personal best when he finished 7th in the final.

ELLEN KEANE

Swimming, SB9 100m breaststroke

Finished ninth overall in the heats.

JAMES BROWN and DAMIEN SHAW

Cycling, individual B road race

Forced to withdraw from the race when they suffered a puncture followed by a mechanical fault in the first 32km of the 104km race. Before their withdrawal the duo were active at the front of the race.

CATHERINE MEEHAN and FRAN WALSH

Cycling, women’s individual B road race Failed to add to their medal tally, finishing in ninth place with a time of 2:13:04.

KATIE GEORGE DUNLEVY and SANDRA FITZGERALD

Finished in fifth place.

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