Now the nice little warm up of the Olympics has been and gone, it’s time for the main event in Tokyo: the Paralympics.
As a kid growing up non-Disabled, I was privileged to know a couple of Olympians. The brilliant Miss Ball, who taught me PE, was a rower in the Los Angeles games in 1984, and the mighty Heather Oakes, who was a track star along with her husband Gary in the Moscow games in 1980, and then again, in 1984. Team Oakes won bronze medals for track events.
I used to go and watch athletics at Crystal Palace, astonished that, back then, people would be this good, after a day job. There was little funding back then, so athletes had a nine to five, and would train at either end of the working day. Even a top-level stadium like Crystal Palace was ropey – in need of a good lick of paint, and something to sort the cracks in the paving.
Above all sports, there was one event that really grabbed my attention: the London Marathon. Like all the running races joined together into one mighty test of endurance, in heat, over cobbles, around roads around the city I grew up in, it was a jaw-dropping combination of stamina and familiarity. And above all athletes, Charlie Spedding, Steve Jones, Ingrid Kristiansen, there was one I couldn’t stop watching: Tanni Grey-Thompson.
Tanni stood out to me. As someone with lifelong feeble arm strength, I was agog at how anyone could sustain power and strength in a wheelchair over that distance for that amount of time. She made it look easy. And to me, wheelchair using (especially now I use one) feels physically gruelling. She won the marathon six times. Nobody else came close, on legs or wheels. And she was a woman.
Sports coverage has a male bias – even today, people focus on the non-Disabled male victories as the only ones that count. But when somebody wins six times – you have to count. She was powerful, gracious, relentless, unignorable. As a girl, it was so good to see a woman literally in the driving seat, blowing everyone else away with her brilliance. Tanni wasn’t just on a par with my earlier Olympic role models, she was outgunning them with golds instead of bronzes.
I didn’t really watch sport for the noughties. Life got busy in other areas. But when the Olympics came home in 2012, things changed. I was glued to them, like most of the nation. And once the Olympics were over, I didn’t stop watching: I got glued to the Paras. I became fascinated with the adaptations, the classifications, the abilities of people who in day to day life are often overlooked in general society. I saw strength, can do, and the frisson of wonder you get when you see people pushing themselves to limits you can only dream of as someone who isn’t a sports pro. The Paras put quite a dent in my ableist worldview.
In 2012, it felt, for the first time, like the Paras and the Olympics were on a par. And it angered me to later find out that the funding and rewards for disability sport, like women’s sport, still have so far to go for parity. That in so many ways, Para athletes are right where non-Disabled Olympians were 40 years ago, jumping over the cracks at Crystal Palace, hauling themselves out of bed at the crack of dawn to train before a full day’s work.
I am still angry. Because nearly a decade on, as well as the funding issues, if you want to watch Para sport, you have to go to grotty local sports centres, and you’ll struggle to find anything on TV. I’m guessing TV execs have never seen a wheelchair rugby match, heard the clash of metal on metal, and almost been taken out from the sidelines by a tackle from those modern-day Barbarians. Because there is no sport like it for adrenaline rush, speed, fight and thrill. It’s on a par with Ninja Warrior for watchability.
When you watch our Para athletes, go, they really go. They are gladiators. They are dynamos. They are at the top of their game. And I am in awe of their excellence. And I long for the world to join me in seeing them do their thing, and feeling that awe. I want to see more Para sport. Because Paralympians are for life, not just for every fourth summer.
Anna is a Disabled mother of a Disabled child and DR UK’s Media and Communications Manager