Full stadiums, cheering crowds and an opening ceremony that was watched by over eight million people. Over 600 hours of Paralympic activity broadcast on free-to-air TV and a very good medal table for GB. The fact that the games have returned to the country where they were invented has, I’m sure, contributed a great deal to their success.
Here are some thoughts about what I’ve seen on TV, saw in person at the Olympic Stadium last Friday and, to make it personal, some para-sports related family memoirs.
The Opening Ceremony:
It was always going to be tough job to produce an exhilarating opening ceremony because the whole nation has already seen two Olympic ceremonies in about a month. In addition, a large part of the three hour program is taken up by processions, speeches and flag raising, which are not in themselves riveting viewing.
But the production team, headed by Jenny Sealey and Bradley Hemmings exceeded all expectations. They began by introducing the audience to Professor Stephen Hawking, probably the most famous living disabled person. The cast of over three thousand volunteers, headed by Hawking himself, with Ian McKellen as Prospero, and disabled actor Nicola Miles-Wildin as Miranda celebrated science, literature, athleticism and human rights using words from both Hawking and Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’.
Cast members with disabilities, including Tanni Grey-Thompson flew from the high wires and the Paralympic flame was carried into the stadium from the Orbit on a zip wire by 2016 paralympic hopeful Joe Townshend, a 24 year old ex-marine who lost both legs in Afghanistan. The production team used all the facilities of the massive stadium to produce a thrilling piece of physical theatre. The Olympic cauldron was lit by Margaret Maughan who won GB’s first ever paralympic medal in Rome in1960; one year after she broke her back in a road accident. Margaret Maughan was treated by Ludwig Guttmann, and I think that is fitting that the cauldron was lit by somebody who remembers the movement’s founder.
The highlight for me was John Kelly and the cast of “Reasons to be Cheerful” singing Ian Dury’s “Spasticus Autisticus” anthem that was originally written for the International Year of the Disabled in 1981, and which was, at the time, banned from the airwaves by the BBC because the word Spastic (traditionally a term to describe sufferers of cerebral palsy) was becoming taboo in Britain, due to its increasing use as an insult. The BBC did not trust the public to understand Dury’s sense of irony.
Spasticus Autisticus is of course a protest song, and this, together with Miranda’s shattering of the glass ceiling was large part of the human rights theme of the ceremony.
Our visit to theGames – Friday 31 August
Marilyn and I went to the evening athletics session on Friday. We were fortunate enough to see an iconic moment - Hannah Cockroft win GB’s first track gold medal in the T34 100 metres race. From high up on level two I managed to get a fairly decent picture of Hannah and the runners-up celebrating. We were thrilled at the spectacle of the full stadium and the cheering crowds.
The Paralympic games have moved on so much since Atlanta sixteen years ago. Yesterday I posted something about the current games on the Polio History Facebook page, and got these comments from Kathy Gregory Davies, who was a member of the GB basketball team in Atlanta. Kathy wrote:
In Atlanta, the organisers had only 3% of the budget left after the Olympics. They were selling off furniture etc in the accommodation to make up the shortfall.Some of the teams had no blankets, microwaves were gone, one of the food halls was closed down, though they had to re-open it. One American offered my team accommodation in his hotel when he heard how bad it was. Luckily, we had a good psychologist with us: btw, we stayed with the rest of the Brits, but thanked the hotelier for his offer.
A personal memoir –My Mum, Ludwig Guttmann and Ian Dury
I’ve always known who Ludwig Guttmann is, ever since I was a child. That’s because my mum, Kathy Bradford, often talked about him. Even though she was not a particularly sporty person, way back in the 1950s and1960s she know about the work that he was doing to enable people like her to excel.
But Kathy died in 1995, and I must admit that I’d forgotten thatI knew anything about Guttmann until the run-up to the games. I’m quite pleased that I knew of what he was doing so many years before he belatedly became a knight of the realm and the subject of a TV docu-drama.
Ludwig Guttmann may have been one of Kathy’s heroes but Ian Dury was certainly not a hero to her. She was scandalised by the very thought of a song being titled “Spasticus Autisticus”, which made her one of the people whom the BBC wished to protect. But in 1981 she was almost seventy years old, and that explains a lot of her dislike of Ian Dury. She loved pop and rock but she much preferred Wham, the Beatles and Patsy Cline. She wasn’t that keen on the Stones or Bob Dylan either. I don’t think that she ever heard “Spasticus” because it wasn’t played on the radio, and she certainly wasn’t going to buy it and lend it her support. I could have lent her my copy of Ian’s “New Boots and Panties” album but I don’t think that she would have approved of the opening lines of “Plaistow Patricia”. You can look up what those lines are here – I’m also conscious that some of the readersof this blog may be offended if I print them.
Kathy would be 100 years old this year. I think that if she’d lived to see John Kelly, Nadia Albina and Garry Robson belting out the lyrics to Spasticus at the opening ceremony, and seen thousands and thousands of people supporting the paralympians, she would have got the joke and would have promoted Ian - as well as John, Nadia and Garry - to hero status.