Imagine that you had been preparing for something all your life. You had put in thousands of hours over a period of years. You have changed your diet, moved away from family, put yourself through training sessions every day and had beaten off stiff competition. Now the biggest moment of your life was around the corner and you were determined to do your country proud. You do exactly that. You compete, you win a medal and you have achieved your goal and life long ambition.
Now imagine that instead of your accomplishment, people had been talking about something else instead. You’d be rightly deflated to say the least, and every right to feel that you had been disrespected.
We all know that the Paralympic Games bring perhaps a unique focus on the issues that face disabled people and, and arguably have a wider significance than the Olympics as a result. This brings with it an opportunity to engage in sensible and measured debate, reflect on issues and find solutions to complex social problems. There will be those that will merely seek to frankly hijack the games to suit their own agenda. Certain groups will try to grab headlines at any cost and will frankly miss the point in doing so. Away from sport, what is needed is measured debate to engage in the nuances of issues faced and engage in a collaborative way to find solutions.
Turning to the games themselves, we all know they have had a troubled build up. We all know that there are issues with the classification system for athletes. All of this though is beyond the control of the individual athletes who have dedicated their lives, or at least a substantial portion of it, making significant sacrifices in the process, to get to Rio. These athletes don’t seek to be admired as ‘inspirational’ (though they may rightly be seen as being so), hailed as heroes or as universal spokespeople for disabled people everywhere.
The athletes simply want to be recognised for being world class in what they have chosen to do, and be rightly respected for the level at which they perform. It is time for stories of sporting accomplishment to take centre stage, and for us to respect the abilities of athletes who will maximise their abilities to perform their chosen sport.
It is time to let the sport do the talking.
At this point, to focus on anything else would be to be distracted by a side issue. Just as the Olympics provided the nation with a much needed ‘feel good’ factor, I hope and expect the Paralympics to do the same. The temptation to be distracted by the side issues will be great. People will use vivid headlines and messages to get your attention. Unfortunately, the complexity of the social issues we face means that little will change in focusing on them during the games themselves. We can tackle those issues after the Paralympics, when we’ve rightly recognised the achievement of the athletes who will be representing our country in Rio.