09/03/2012

The Paralympics in London: courage and tears

All competitors at the London Paralympics are a story of courage in the face of disability. We must change our attitude to them


According to all reports, the Paralympics in London are generating the same overwhelming enthusiasm as did the Olympics a short time ago. The noise in the stadiums is again the same wall of sound, pushing British athletes to new heights, but also encouraging athletes of all countries. The TV broadcaster, Channel 4, even scrapped its original schedules to concentrate on it, whilst the Swiss RTS showed the Swiss Edith Wolf-Hunkeler winning, by a half wheel, the 5000 metres handcycling (wheelchair) race.

All of the competitors there deserve our utmost admiration for their efforts. A significant number of them, in particular those with at most one leg, are victims of IEDs in countries where there are conflicts. However, others have had to accept being born with disabilities (sometimes Thalidomide, for which there has finally been some sort of apology from the manufacturer, Grunenthal!), or having been in various types of accident. The Times regularly has articles by a journalist called Melanie Reid, who was paralysed by a fall from a horse, but who is now riding again.

All of these athletes have to travel, by road, rail and air. I was impressed, on a rail journey from the Valais region of Switzerland back to Geneva a couple of days ago, to see the railway personnel getting a wheelchair, with its occupant on board, into a train using a specialised fork lift platform. However, in the past I have been less than impressed by the restrictions that airlines sometimes impose: one low cost company operating out of Geneva was recently convicted of discrimination against wheelchair passengers in both Switzerland and France.

One very well known Paralympic competitor is the racing driver Alex Zanardi, who lost both legs in an accident in Germany 11 years ago. According to reports, he was in a coma after the amputation, survived 50 minutes with only one litre of blood in his body and had his heart restarted 7 times. Yet while he was in the coma, with a priest at his bedside ready to read the last rites, his wife was phoning to arrange for delivery of a specially adapted BMW: she knew that he would want to drive again. She was right, and he even raced cars again. In the Paralympics he is in the handcycling long distance category, having already won marathons in Rome, Venice and New York. I would not like to be any airline company employee trying to tell him that he could not fly without an accompanying person!

Being someone in a family whose sport has mainly been tennis, I am also interested in the wheelchair tennis. We can see that each year at the Swiss Open Championship in Châtelaine, and every time that I watch it I am amazed at the power that the players can generate from a seated position. The Dutch lady, Esther Vergeer, is the overwhelming favouriter, having not lost a match for 9 years. Yes, 9 years and currently 466 consecutive wins: even Roger Federer is light years behind!

In my opinion, the best remark on these Paralympics was the headline in the Times editorial section

The greatest legacy of the Paralympics may be the change in attitudes to disability

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