Ibrahim Hamadtou from Egypt lost both arms in a train accident when he was 10. At Rio Paralympics 2016, he made his table tennis debut. To serve, he throws the ball in the air with one bare foot and hits it with the racket in his mouth. Watching him execute deadly smashes while playing with only one shoe and racket in his mouth – feels like watching a man showing a fist to his fate.
The event Ibrahim plays in is dominated by Ukraine’s Viktor Didukh who recovered from cancer that left one leg amputated to win gold.
Can a man without hands shoot an arrow into a target? What about a woman with one leg limping over a high-jump bar? Can a man without legs lift 310 kg or women with no legs play volleyball? Want to see a woman who was run over by a truck, her body broken, pick herself together to compete in what she loves most: cycling? Can you believe there’s a triathlon for those without hands and legs?
You will believe only if you see a man with no hands and one leg qualify for the final of breaststroke swimming alongside a man with literally no limbs whose gold is eventually won by a man with no hands. Want to see how a man who doesn’t even have a palm, throws the shot-put or how brutal a game of wheelchair rugby can get, or how a woman with no hands can wield a sword and win a fencing gold medal?
Yes, there are names attached to each of the above. But I don’t attach any because this is just a tiny sample of what has been on offer at Paralympics so far. But if you insist, let me attach a few to a handful of sensational incidents that can happen only at the Paralympics.
On the 15th anniversary of the car crash that changed his life forever, Italy’s former Formula One racing heartthrob Alessandro Zanardi claimed silver in a wheelchair road race. This isn’t the only Paralympic coincidence. Take Alex Zanardi of Italy who won gold at the Brands Hatch track in road cycling at London 2012, the same track he used to race motors before his accident.
Ever wonder how a man in a wheelchair can light the big Olympic cauldron with the Olympic torch? In Beijing 2008, Hou Bin of China stuck the Paralympics torch to his wheelchair and pulled himself and his wheelchair up using a rope with his bare hands to light the giant cauldron.
Did you have a tear in your eyes watching Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi go mad after winning a joint gold medal in high jump at Tokyo Olympics with Qatar’s Mutaz Barshim? Gather your tissue box before you watch Bebe Vio – again of Italy – go berserk with jubilation after she won gold at Rio 2016 in wheelchair fencing. What’s the big deal you’ll ask? Well, Bebe Vio has no arms and legs.
One of the most beautiful sights in life is watching disabled athletes celebrate. If Olympians are happy, watch the Paralympians celebrate and you’ll know what ecstasy must feel like. So what if they can’t take a victory lap around the stadium or often can’t see or hear the crowd cheering for them.
These and many incredible sights are playing live on a screen near you right now at Tokyo Paralympics 2020. I run out of adjectives to describe it because even calling the Paralympics sheer magic doesn’t suffice.
Have you ever heard of this game called goalball played by the blind? Let me not describe it: Google and see the game to realise that it is an entirely new fun sport which you and I can play as well. We can also play another amazing game: blind football.
It is a game played on a smaller field with five players. Except for the goalkeeper manning a smaller goal, the other four players are blind. The boundary is boarded up to keep the ball in play and players utter a word to denote they have the ball. You’d think it’d be boring. But watch it and you’ll know the pace and mad skills these blind players exhibit.
Faster. Higher. Stronger, that’s the motto of the Olympics. The disabled can’t usually be the fastest or highest, but to me, the sportspersons at the Paralympics are the strongest in the world. That’s because most have overcome odds more Herculean than Olympians. Many indeed were headed for Olympic glory when an accident cut that journey short and pushed them, after much heartbreak, to the Paralympics. Like Sandra Paovic, a table tennis player who had competed in the 2008 Olympics, had an accident, and later won Paralympic gold on debut.
This is the first Paralympics I’m watching with focus and I realise I’m enjoying this more than the Olympics. In the Olympics, I mostly watch games involving Indian and refugee team events because these are players I am most emotionally invested in. Occasionally I watch events with boredom, more with a desire to know than for the enjoyment of it.
In contrast, the last few days I have been watching the Paralympics, because I have found it fascinating. After the Olympics ended, I began watching some of the Paralympic events of the past on their YouTube channel and I was instantly hooked. The reason is simple: I am not only watching players competing, but am watching some games I have never seen before and am amazed by how they are played and the rules involved. I feel like Jasmine on Aladdin’s carpet, a whole new world of sports suddenly introduced to me.
Not many people outside the disability sector think about it, but ability is so fickle that it is disability that is our ‘normal’ state of being. And that’s not only because it just takes a bad moment – a fall, a crash, a bang, etc. – to take some, most, or all of our abilities away. But because in truth even the best of us are only temporarily able-bodied i.e. we are non-disabled only for a short period of our lives.
Think of a newborn. She’s practically disabled for years, physically and mentally. Most governments trust her to get married, drink or join the military only after she turns 18. Not all of those 18 year olds are in prime health, but even among those that are, disability will creep into them slowly but steadily.
Bad eyesight is one of the most common disabilities. I can barely see without my specs. Once you cross say 35 most of us enter the zone of disability for the rest of your life. Let’s not even begin with those of us who are mentally deficient enough for a clinical analysis to label us disabled. And anyone who knows an old person knows the various levels of disability they live through.
Thus, through an average life, disability is the ‘normal’ state of our existence. Yet it is our ignorance that makes us look down upon those who we officially consider disabled, i.e., around 15% of the world’s population or 1 billion people.
That is also where I believe the Paralympics are more important than the Olympics because Olympic capabilities are beyond the reach of the majority; they are like models with perfect figures whose shape I will never reach. But the Paralympians are more like me. I can relate to their broken body because mine is too, I can feel some of their mental deficiencies because I can see the many mental impairments I have.
Hence, even if you miss the actual Olympics, you shouldn’t miss the Paralympics for the world. Don’t watch it for the competition, watch it for the cooperation, for the smiles. Don’t get me wrong, Paralympians are fiercely competitive, but each knows the other's difficulty so they are humbler than their able-bodied counterparts. The famed ‘spirit of the game’ that we celebrate as an exception in the games played by abled-bodied people, is a rule among disabled sportspersons.
Paralympics is more colourful, more fun, more engaging because often the challenge is wondering how a disabled person would do something you and I take for granted. These people are the bigger winners because for me true victory is not defeating an opponent. It is about defeating the voice of defeat in your mind, rising up, and fighting the odds.
One of my primary reasons for watching the able-bodied Olympics is inspiration. I love the stories of struggle, the poverty to podium finishes, the literal blood, sweat, and tears that colour the medals, the agony, pain and eventual ecstasy for a handful. Being aware of issues with disability, I have always been uncomfortable with ‘using’ the disabled as tools to inspire me. But it is only while watching the Paralympics that I realised how I was being prejudiced in the garb of not being so. If being inspired is why I watch the Olympics, why can’t it be the same reason I watch the Paralympics?
Hence, this time I am mining the Tokyo Paralympics 2020 for the Ibrahim Hamadtou, Viktor Didukh, Bebe Vio, Hou Bin, Alessandro Zanardi and Sandra Paovic of the world. I am digging into its soul to find that emotional lift that will keep me charged up even through the depression caused by the pandemic. And I shall wait for Paris 2024, this time more for the Paralympics, than for the Olympics.
(Satyen K. Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. He loves to let his pen roam the intersection of artificial intelligence, consciousness, and quantum mechanics. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)
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