The flame that will never go out: How the Paralympics festival of sport has changed the world in 11 days
Once we might have looked at disabled athletes and seen a tragedy. Now we look and see triumph
Oliver Holt, September 9, 2012, Mirror UK
Flames: Heart-shaped display at the closing ceremony
Once, not very long ago, the Paralympics was an event that could not stand alone.
It was an add-on to the Olympics. It was an obligation.
Some said it was the price you paid for staging the Greatest Show on Earth.
Others muttered that the event was a gesture to political correctness, a deformed limb, superfluous and awkward.
It seems strange now. It seems prehistoric. Because what has happened in the last 11 days in London has changed the world.
Not for everyone. Not for those who were already enlightened. Not for those who have, for their own reasons, remained unmoved.
But for many, the world has altered. For the better.
The move towards inclusivity and away from discrimination against the disabled has accelerated.
When the athletes who have graced these Paralympics made their way into the Olympic Stadium for the closing ceremony, many among them had become our heroes.
Athlete David Weir and cyclist Sarah Storey of Great Britain carry the flag and join fellow flagbearers during the closing ceremony
They filed in before the beginning, some twirling scarves, some waving at friends and family in the crowd, some punching the air.
Some danced in joyous circles in the infield as Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons played over the loud speaker system.
After the last 11 days of sport and wonder, everyone in the stadium felt like dancing with them.
Once we might have looked at disabled athletes and seen a tragedy. Now we look and see triumph.
Now we look and see people we would like to be.
Now we look and see people not to be pitied but to be admired.
Now we do not avert our gaze. Instead we stare in wonder.
Sparkles: The symbol displayed at the closing ceremony
The place Ian Dury called Normal Land in his song, Spasticus Autisticus, has lost its borders.
“Is this a kind of magic?” Freddie Mercury’s voice sang to the stadium as the last of the athletes joined the party.
And the answer is, “Yes, it is”. Pity has been banished. It has been replaced by something closer to envy.
It was only a couple of months ago that Oscar Pistorius felt the need to warn against displays of pity masquerading as shows of support at the Paralympics.
The great South African runner who has done so much to break down barriers was wary of a concentration on stories of pluck in the face of adversity.
He hoped we would focus instead on the sport, on the intensity of the competition.
He hoped we would see that these were elite sportsmen and women capable of producing great drama.
He hoped we would focus not on the disabilities of the competitors, but on their abilities.
Not on what they could not do but what they could do. How his hopes were fulfilled, not least in the events in which he participated.
Last Thursday night, Pistorius’s T44 men’s 100m race against Britain’s Jonnie Peacock and the Brazilian Alan Oliveira drew 6.6 million viewers on Channel 4.
Jonnie Peacock of Great Britain crosses the line to win gold in the Men’s 100m
The following evening, the first match of England’s World Cup qualifying campaign attracted 3.9 million.
Those who tuned in to watch Peacock and Pistorius did not tune in out of pity or mawkishness. They wanted to watch a race.
They wanted to watch a showdown between the biggest name in Paralympic sport and a new idol.
Those who were lucky enough to be in the stadium that Thursday night and see Peacock’s triumph said it matched events of Super Saturday at the Olympics a few weeks earlier.
Those of us who were there a few days earlier when David Weir won the T54 men’s 1500m knew what they meant.
When Weir rounded the final bend, the roar that followed him was the same as the one that followed Mo Farah in the men’s 5,000m final.
Both of them made the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.
What an athlete Weir is. What a man of speed and strength and endurance and indomitability.
He won his fourth gold medal of the Paralympics this afternoon in the marathon.
When he crossed the finishing line in The Mall, after 26 miles of debilitating racing in the searing heat, he did not stop.
He kept on going, kept on pushing at his racing rims, not letting up, heading down towards Admiralty Arch.
He was not sure where the finish line was, he said later, so he just kept going until he was absolutely, categorically sure he had won.
And that is typical of the men and women we have seen at this festival of sport. They keep on going. They will not be thwarted.
Even when the odds against them seem insurmountable. Even when others would surrender.
On the second day of competition, 7/7 survivor Martine Wright became a Paralympian when she played for Britain against Ukraine in sitting volleyball.
Britain might easily have been overwhelmed by the Ukrainians but they refused to give in.
Great Britain’s Martine Wright (2nd R) celebrates a point with team-mate Victoria Widdup (L) during their women’s sitting volleyball match against Ukraine during the London 2012 Paralympic Games
With Wright on the court and helping to retrieve several points that looked like lost causes, GB went down but they went down fighting.
“I just want to make my family and my nation proud.
“I play a sport I absolutely love and it has given me so much,” Wright, 39, said.
“If I can inspire people at home, whether they are disabled or able-bodied, just to go out and pick up a ball then my job is done.”
The remarkable Esther Vergeer was in the stadium tonight, too.
The Dutchwoman won her fourth Paralympic wheelchair tennis gold on Friday.
It was her 470th consecutive victory.
Delight: Cyclist Sarah Storey wins gold
Ellie Simmonds was there, too. The S6 swimmer has become one of the most popular sportswomen in the country and won two golds, a silver and bronze here.
She has become a byword for indomitability, too. But also for humility. And willpower.
Perhaps four years ago when she burst into the public consciousness, the interest in her was one-dimensional and curious.
Now it is as a competitor that we view her and her rivalry with the American, Victoria Arlen, was one of the great narratives of these Paralympics.
Then there was Alessandro Zanardi, the former Formula 1 driver, who lost both legs in a race car accident 11 years ago.
Zanardi won gold at Brands Hatch in the handbiking time trial and, in one of the most memorable pictures of the games, sat on the track at the end and held the bike above his head with one hand as if it was weightless.
Zanardi hoped his achievement might inspire others to beat their own kinds of adversity. We know it will.
Driven: Alessandro Zanardi of Italy
The daughter of much respected and admired Everton footballer Phil Neville has already been inspired.
Eight-year-old Isabella Neville has cerebral palsy and had been reluctant to get a wheelchair.
Then she watched Britain’s Hannah Cockcroft race to 100m and 200m wheelchair gold.
Now she cannot wait to get her own chair.
When the time came finally to extinguish the flame that has burned in London for so much of this enchanted summer, it seemed fitting that Peacock and Simmonds, two of those who have made it burn brightest, should be involved in the honour.
The flame has been the symbol of an enchanted summer.
The things we have witnessed here these last 11 days, the changes the events have engendered, means that it will never really go out.