From its initial incarnation as a rehabilitation exercise for ex servicemen that began in 1948 at Stoke Mandeville to the global event of today, the Paralympic Games is an extraordinary spectacle. Starting solely with Archery in those early days, the Games now host twenty different events along with a bewildering array of stratifying subcategories.
Where the Special Olympics has a therapeutic SP – ‘community sport year-round at all levels for those with learning disabilities’ – the Paralympics ‘provides sports competitions for elite level disabled athletes with physical and sensory disabilities, including learning disabilities.’ It is a distinction that, until recently, was lost on some people. Now, with vastly superior equipment and materials, such as the £15,000-a-pair Flex-Foot Cheetahs, worn by ‘Blade Runner’ Oscar Pistorius, or ‘Murderball’ Andy barrow’s F1 ‘steel machine,’ made for taking on the best in the world at Wheelchair Rugby, it is just…well…exciting.
That Paralympic Show makes disability sport sexy – and not just because Ade Adepitan presents it – but it certainly helps. The tone of the show is part Gadget Show and part T4. Athletes are as diverse in background and impairment as they are in character. Each week showcases a different sport and each time both able bodied and disabled have a go. Invariably, it is the expert in that field who excels – and the expert is invariably disabled. That is the genius of it.
From the rank of soldiers serving in recent wars to the ranks of athletes serving at the Paralympics, the influx of ex servicemen has given the Paralympics a heroic edge. The Battle Back scheme – for rehabilitating injured ex servicemen – has provided paratrooper Tel Byrne and former RAF weapons technician Jon-Allan Butterworth for Team GB Para-Cycling. Tel Byrne:
“Battle Back is phenomenal, a brilliant programme that’s helping so many wounded soldiers. They got me back on the move, trying new things. It was an inspiration.”
Where the Paralympics has long attracted admiration, this is different, and as such invigorating for the format. People can identify with soldiers who have overcome their impairment to excel at such an elite level because they can recognise themselves.
Participation television works best when it is self referential – X-Factor, BGT – and this is no less applicable to sport. If anything, the 2012 Paralympics resound much more closely to the average viewer than the regular Olympic Games. Wouldn’t we all like to believe that we could turn adversity into success? That is the magic formula of reality television, and the Paralympics has it all.
The much discussed ‘journey’ that featured reality contestants risibly undergo is a reality in Paralympic sport. From a position of cultural low expectations, athletes achieve significant success. This is no place for platitudes, and the disarmingly light tone of That Paralympic Show perfectly conveys this. It’s a yes from me.
That Paralympic Show is next on Channel 4 Saturday 1.15pm
Jane Renton is a thirtysomething writer and mother of three children with disabilities. Follow Jane on twitter/@rentonifyable