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Paralympics: True Diversity

Foreground: National Maritime Museum
Background: The Cutty Sark, The Shard & the City

I went to the morning session at Greenwich Park today to see the Equestrian competitors. The competitors were Grade II, the second most severely disabled riders and although they all rode the same dressage test, there any similarities ended.

Each rider was announced into the ring not just by name and horse, but by age and career, with a brief precis of how they had come into Paralympic sports. The ages ranged from something like 17 to 56, the previous and current professions varying from anaesthetist to film stunt rider to surgeon. Most riders had a sporting philosophy which were also shared with us, my favourites being:

Don’t start tomorrow what you can do today

Look at the doughnut, not the hole

The routes into Paralympic sport were many and varied; one of the athletes had previously been an Paralympic swimmer. Some had been born with disability, some athletes had met with accidents, the majority of which were on horses… One woman had contracted a disability after being poisoned by a pesticide.

And then there were the horses and the weather. We had rain, we had sun, we had wind and we had clouds, we had brief spells of warmth and some teeth-chattering cold; not once or even twice but enough to remind us that the only thing we can be certain of in life is that change is always happening somewhere. The horses were a delight. Lining up against the more traditional stamp of warm-blooded dressage-type horse with floating paces and extravagant gaits were smaller pony types described variously as pedigree unknown, not listed or this piebald one below, with the most marvellous feather, announced as a ‘native cob’.

Barbara Minneci, Belgium with Barilla

This competitor rode side-saddle, but we had paraplegic riders using two schooling whips as aids, riders who had to have their legs strapped down, and one competitor Angelika Trabert from Germany who was born without legs and with only three fingers on her right hand. She rode a beautiful test on Arriva-Avant to finish 9th. Her life philosophy is, ‘It’s ability, not disability, that counts!’

The diversity of horses and riders is fascinating. Clearly, the horses are selected based not just on ability, but the ability of their rider to form a successful partnership with them. The flashy power of a Grand Prix dressage horse is not for every Paralympian rider to contain and yet without that I still found the quiet spectacle of these riders and horses both mesmerising and deeply affecting. Somebody said on the television the other day that Paralympians did not want people to feel sorry for them. I was shocked; I can honestly say that the thought had never crossed my mind. Why would a sports person performing at the top of their game evoke sympathy in me, or you? Still, there is something extra to watching Paralympian sport. I think, for me, it is something to do with the showcasing of the essential human spirit, the ability to get on with taking the steps needed to achieve goals and realise dreams.

The differences between the horses and the competitors extend to how the crowd is to show their appreciation. Some horses and riders can be applauded in the usual way, some only when the horse has left the immediate test arena and the coach has a hand firmly on the bridle. Some horses prefer to ‘ponied’ into the arena by the ‘friendly horse’ and there were two horses that we could not applaud at all. One of these partnerships was Lauren Barwick with her horse Off to Paris, representing Canada. They entered in silence apart from the music that is played continuously throughout the tests. As the test started a new song began, I don’t even know what it was, but it fitted the mood. The test this pair went on to produce together was thing of beauty. There are no words I can use to describe it adequately, you had to be there. It was not marked the highest by the judges (they came 3rd), but the energy and connection between the rider and her horse was palpable. When it ended, the crowd had to remain silent. I was overwhelmed and could only release the high emotion generated by the horse and rider through shedding a few quick tears, and by hand-waving, as we had been told by the commentator was the alternative way to show support and appreciation. Thousands of us waving in silence.

I have seen competition dressage before, I have ridden the odd test of my own 20 years ago. This is not a paean to dressage per se. What it is, is a witness statement to riders who find new ways to work with their horses to achieve something that looks so simple, but is fiendishly tricky, even with the use of all your limbs. The morning’s highest score belonged to the GB Para Dressage rider Natasha Baker, who has developed a system of voice commands to ride the tests on her horse Cabral. Curiously, although I enjoyed her test immensely and clapped hard and the kids waved the Union Jacks, the partisan nature of supporting Great Britain was muted. With the Paralympics, it is not so much sitting there to support one’s own small dot of a country, it feels much more like you are sitting there to support and will on the human race.

So many times I have felt that the title of my blog ‘On wishes and horses’ might seem vacuous and misleading, appearing to lack any real intent or motivation. The truth is I took it from the rhyme, ‘If wishes were horses then beggars would ride…’ which of course means that wishes are useless. I am keeping the blog title, at it continues to remind me that the type of intent on show today is everything.

To clarify, courtesy of delightmakers.com (whose website is down as I write)

Intent is not a thought, or an object, or a wish. Intent is what can make a man succeed when his thoughts tell him that he is defeated…

In this case I would amend the saying slightly, ‘Intent is what can make any human being or horse succeed when their thoughts might tell them they are defeated’. That is the essence of what I think I saw today, and it was simply one of the most amazing and renewing days of my life.

Updated 3 September: This post has proved popular. For more on the Paralympics, my take on Oscar Pistorius and Bladegate is here

Off the wall, Olympic style

I am trying to Get On. I thought I was getting on with finishing a project, but when I went back to it today, I realised it was almost entirely off-topic and not at all suitable for its intended purpose. Fifteen hundred words of meander. I think it defies an edit, so, it’s going on the compost heap – which is the blog.

Sometimes, I don’t know where my brain goes off to. I really don’t.

I write this final part, part five, as the London Olympics 2012, takes place. It seems apt somehow and compels me to get to the finish line of my own project; something which, I admit, I have begun dragging my heels on a little since June.

The dragging has been for many reasons and yet no particular one. Firstly, there is the business of putting one’s work ‘out there’ – alone and bare without the collaborative efforts of an editor, or a proof-reader, or a publisher who has believed in you in the first place. Independent publishing, although much vaunted as the way forward, is at its very essence an act of extreme hubris, perhaps. Writers, who have not been professionally validated, sticking it all out there anyway. This is not a criticism, I am one myself, but self-publishing, with few sales and even fewer reviews, let alone positive ones, is not for the faint-hearted, or the writer who is not prepared to accept that their craft is far from the finished article. I am quite sure that, if my wafflings were subject to a proper editing process, what I have just written and what I am about to say would be the first cold cut of the day.

Anyway, it’s just me, self-publishing away and The Olympics is proving the backdrop for my writing at the moment. Yesterday the cyclist, Bradley Wiggins, cemented his position as one Britain’s greatest Olympians when he won his 7th medal, making him our ‘most decorated Olympian’ ever. That’s the phrase the pundits favour, personally I think it makes him sound a bit like a chintzy lounge. (Chintz is a word that has haunted me since I wrote the episode about the terrapins. I proofed and proofed and then published and immediately noticed that the terrapins own pink chintz palace was missing a ‘z’. ( The Shame.) What ‘most decorated’ means is that our Bradley has won the most medals of all colours, of all our athletes ever. I don’t think Bradley would mind me pointing out that the British record for the most gold medals ever remains our rower the great Sir Steve Redgrave. And, as soon as I typed that, Sir Chris Hoy picked up his 5th gold medal to equal Steve and I think exceed Bradley in the decorated stakes; except that Hoy had the good grace to point out that Redgrave did it the hard way, in consecutive Olympics. Fair point.

The point that I am trying to get to about Bradley and the Olympics is something he said yesterday in his immediate post-race interview. The race was a road time trial around the south-west of London and into Surrey and he cracked through it in a sub 51 minutes time, taking nearly a minute out of his nearest rival. After the immense effort, instead of joining his fellow medallists on some over-decorated purple and gilt thrones to match the occasion, in front of Hampton Court Palace, Bradley hopped back on his bike, that instrument of both torture and glory, and spun off down the road from whence he had come only a short while before. You could sense, here was a man, trying to take it all in; a man trying to imprint the experience, like a mother tries to sear the first impression of her new baby into her mind forever. When he had finally cycled back to the fold, in the interview he said that he could not remember the Beijing Olympics, ‘perhaps I was too young…’

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? Those huge events in our lives, and alright, I know that for most of us it’s not going to consist of winning a medal of any kind, let alone our ninth Olympic one, they just don’t always go into our heads in the way we are so certain they will at the time. Or if they do go in, the retrieval doesn’t work neatly in the way we would like. How nice if memory was like a set of show reels, labelled alphabetically placed on a great big mental shelving unit. It’s not though. Even someone like Bradley, lucky enough to have his great moments filmed for posterity, may have trouble filling in the emotional memory gaps in future, even when the events are played before his very eyes.

And that is all a very long way of saying, that the one reason my writing has slowed down is that I realise I only have two, very hazy round the edges, memories to turn into a part five. The hope is, and this sometimes happens, that once the retrieval through writing gets going, the brain starts making links and associations and manages to pull memory rabbits out of hats. The problem with this particular period I am trying to recollect is that at the time everything felt hazy anyway. I am writing about my last month of pregnancy, a time when nature wraps you mentally in bubble wrap anyway. There was no film camera, no bicycle by this point, no post-walk interviews and certainly no medal, but there was a baby at the end of it all, and their was a dog called Benji, so I’ll make a start down the home strait and we’ll see what arises from the recesses of my mind.

And then, instead of writing about that, I wrote this:

A strange thing happened, as I walked the current dog home just now on a route I have taken hundreds of times. Firstly, I walked up the opposite side of the street to the usual side I take, and it struck me, from this side, everything looks so… different. Which made me think then, that even if we can never walk in another person’s shoes, we can at least cross over the road, and that that small act in itself can change our perspective completely.

And after I had thought this and was waiting for the lights to change so I could cross a busy road, a man with crutches also stood waiting. I crossed quicker than him, and carried on up the street, but a few moments of stopping to look in a shop window allowed him to gain on me, and I began to hear the rhythm of the crutches clattering the pavement and the sharp intake of his pained breath as he drew closer, until I walked on again. I had, that day, been vaguely thinking about what the writer, Will Self, had said about the Olympics, that he viewed it as ‘horseshit’ and that he felt likewise about performance sport, describing that through the prism of winning and losing as ‘functionless’. I didn’t disagree with everything he said, but this idea that winning and losing was functionless jarred me up a bit. As I heard the man pounding along on his crutches, I thought:

That surely winning and losing is what makes this man get up and go down the road on his crutches, when it is hot and obviously painful for him, when it would be easier to just sit in a chair, somewhere. It is true that Olympic athletes are sponsored large sums but their endeavours are surely the distillation of that human spirit, to simply, live. The product is the race, there has to be a winner, that’s the narrative, the winning then is the result for one, but the will to live is exemplified in all the competitors. I wonder how that can be horseshit. I wonder how, if a child is inspired to tell themselves a story of achievement and endeavour and to perhaps, one day, succeed, how can that be horseshit?

And as I was mulling all this over, the strangest thing of all happened. I felt, as I had always, normal, usual and commonplace. And I realised all the changes that had happened to me over all the years that I had walked with dogs, from childhood with the dog Toby, to the one today, had left something in me still untouched. I looked and felt different, a lot; I was a mosaic of all the changes, but there was a quiddity I could not remember, but I recognised in that moment, that remained.

And I looked at all the other people, on bikes, in cars, walking home and I thought of them, just like me holding their own changes but also staying the same somewhere underneath it all, both ordinary and extraordinary in their own ways. And I thought to myself, they for this period of the Olympic Games in London, are Olympians themselves. And in that way that we always second guess ourselves, I thought, well now you are quite mad, calling them Olympians and so on when they are simply going home from work. But I looked at them again and I knew that every so often, from time to time, each of these people, including me, would excel themselves. There would be no medal, or one of those plaudits Will Self says he wouldn’t turn down, for most of us, but every so often, on a regular day, every one of us will get up and do something just a little bit better than we needed to, for the benefit of no-one and nothing or everyone and everything. We can’t know when, we can’t always plan it four years in advance, but like the man walking down the street on the crutches, or Katherine Grainger winning the Olympic medal she called the ‘People’s Medal’, it happens.

And I thought to myself, in the end, that is what it is all about.