This summer in London has been incredible. We were initially all rather cynical about the Olympics, but swiftly found ourselves caught up in the fever, and became armchair experts on sports as diverse as distance running, cycling speed trials and dressage (I still can’t get over the fact that some horses have better musical timing than I do). Now the Olympics are done and dusted; the Paralympics have swept into view; and finally I had my chance to savour the atmosphere at first hand.
I’m immensely grateful to my best friend and her family, who invited me to join them in cheering on their cousin, Natalie Jones of the GB swimming team. The tickets enabled us to spend the whole morning watching swimming heats and to return in the evening for the finals of those events. It was an absolutely superb day. I’m still not entirely sure what I think of Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre. It’s certainly a striking design – my friend, who was better informed than me, said that she thought it was meant to echo the shape of a stingray, with its raised ‘wings’ holding the tiers of seats. It’s a good concept, but it meant that those of us with quite elevated seats found ourselves looking down at the pool along the descending line of the concave roof – rather like looking through a letterbox. The roof didn’t get in the way of seeing the pool; but it did mean you couldn’t see the seats opposite. Considering how packed the Centre was yesterday, I’d have loved an even greater sense of the crowds.
For the first time, the Paralympics are virtually sold out. There’s never before been this level of demand: still borne aloft on the exhilaration of the Olympics, people are switching their support whole-heatedly to our Paralympic athletes. And not only the British athletes; the Brits, of course, were cheered on with deafening enthusiasm, but the winner of each race was whooped and applauded no matter what their nation. On a couple of occasions in the heats, one swimmer was still trailing some distance away when everyone else had finished. By unspoken agreement, the crowds turned their attention to this athlete and urged them on, clapping, cheering and stamping so hard that the very stands resonated with it. When the athlete made it home, the roar that greeted their finish was almost as loud as that for the winner had been.
In heats where there were no British swimmers, I decided to adopt an athlete, whom I then supported all the way through to the final. In this way I cheered on the Irish Darragh McDonald from the start and was thrilled when he won his heat of the Men’s 400m Freestyle S6; he went on to repeat the feat in the evening’s final, with a powerful performance that won him the gold medal. Admittedly, I was torn in the final because we also had a Brit competing: Matthew Whorwood, who did brilliantly and romped home with the bronze. He was the athlete who seemed most delighted with his medal last night: he was grinning from ear to ear and spontaneously punched the air on the podium. Such joy is infectious.
I adopted two other athletes. One was Maurice Deelen of the Netherlands, who competed in the Men’s 100m Breaststroke SB8. I urged my friend to join me in supporting him, and so the pair of us spent the heats screaming, ‘C’mon Maurice!’ and bounced up and down with excitement in the final as he won bronze. The other was Tomotaro Nakamura of Japan, who seriously impressed me in his heat of the Men’s 100m Breaststroke S7, which he won with an edge-of-the-seat finish. He beat Matthew Levy of Australia by 0.64 of a second. Although I unfortunately didn’t see the final of the 100m Breaststroke, I’m very happy to discover that Nakamura won the silver.
And the Brits? Ah, the Brits did us proud. Every time there was so much as a hint of a British athlete near the pool, the spectators went absolutely mad with joy. Claire Cashmore competed in the Women’s 100m Breaststroke SB8 and stormed home with silver; James Crisp and Sam Hynd battled it out in the Men’s 100m Breaststroke SB8 and came home in 6th and 7th places respectively in the final. Sasha Kindred and Thomas Young came in 2nd and 3rd place in their heat of the Men’s 100m Breaststroke SB7 and finished in 4th and 5th place respectively in the final. Then of course there was Natalie, swimming in the Women’s 400m Freestyle, whose every appearance was greeted by cheers and much flag-waving from our row. To our widespread delight, she qualified in her heat and went through to the final, and in both races (according to my more knowledgeable companions) started off the blocks very strongly. In the final we screamed her name until we were hoarse and she came home in 7th place.
It is true that there was further British excitement in the Women’s 400m Freestyle final, courtesy of Ellie Simmonds. She has become the face of the British Paralympic team, in much the way that Jessica Ennis was the figurehead for our Olympic athletes, and the crowd went wild when Ellie came in yesterday to take her place on the starting blocks. She’s still only 17 years old but already has two Paralympic gold medals from Beijing under her belt; and last night she was defending her crown against Victoria Arlen, a 17-year-old American swimmer who held the World Record. The atmosphere was electric as the race kicked off and Ellie and Victoria were neck-and-neck throughout; at the final turn, Victoria seemed to have the edge and, during the last 50m the crowd went utterly bonkers with screaming and shouting – Ellie managed to edge ahead and secured victory by a whisker. The entire audience surged up onto its feet in one go and the most immense roar went up – a real wall of sound. Ellie smashed the World Record by five seconds; Victoria, in second place, set a new Americas Record; and Lingling Song, the Chinese athlete who took the bronze, set a new Asian Record. It was an absolutely fantastic race, even more nerve-wracking in its final stages than Mo Farah’s 5,000m triumph at the Olympics; and by God it was one of the most exciting evenings I’ve ever spent.
This time round, the Paralympics are doing a great deal of good in that they’re publicising and normalising disability, and encouraging us to look at the athlete and not the impairment. The British press have done a great job in covering events and profiling the competitors; and yet there is still divided opinion on how one should talk about the athletes. There are some people who think that, in telling their stories, the press are trying to patronise them and to manipulate the public’s sympathies with X-Factor-style sob stories. I’m sorry, but I think that’s nonsense. I like to know about the people who are representing my country and it seems wilfully daft to ignore the fact that these men and women have had to overcome particular issues in order to compete. To allow them to tell their stories will allow the rest of us to understand them better and to feel a deeper sense of pride for them.
No one thought there was anything wrong with the press telling Mo Farah’s story, about how he arrived in Britain from Somalia as a boy; the challenges he’s faced just emphasise how great he is as a runner. So why not let the athletes of the Paralympics enlighten us about their own lives and the fight they’ve had to be where they are today? Written or filmed interviews with these athletes, talking candidly about their training and their challenges, will not only raise their personal profiles but also play a huge role in changing how the general public think of people with disabilities. I know this word’s been desperately overused recently, but they are inspiring. Some of them have been born without limbs; some of them have suffered horrific accidents; some of them have been injured by bombs or mines; and yet they have all fought back to become seriously impressive athletes. They’re ruthlessly driven and highly competitive. To overlook their disability or to pretend it isn’t there is to insult them by denying part of who they are and ignoring the true scale of their skill and achievement.
Earlier I mentioned Tomotaro Nakamura, one of the swimmers I ‘adopted’. I was impressed by his grace and speed in the water, and his victory in his 100m Breaststroke heat was a thrillingly close call. He’s a great swimmer. And he has no arms. This amazing guy won a silver medal, in the Paralympic Final of the breaststroke, powering with just his legs. Now, I happen to think that’s pretty damned cool.
Here are some of the ladies and gents whom I had the pleasure of watching yesterday. Congratulations on your magnificent swimming, thank you for a splendid day, and good luck for the races still to come!