The Paralympic Games are the greatest sporting event on Earth, perhaps even beyond (hear me out). I love them. The sights, the sounds, the smells. I even love the taste.
For me, the Games were always salty with sweat. Steaming in a roaring stadium or on the streets as I flew by the burning sands of Copacabana Beach, into the original Olympic stadium in Athens, or even past Big Ben in London.
At times the Paralympics are deafeningly loud. The cheers at the pool as athletes who seemingly should be swimming in circles actually fly to the wall in less than 30 seconds. Or the clattering of wheelchairs at the rugby.
Trust me, there’s nothing scarier than a flying Ryley Batt, Australia’s team captain, hurtling towards you in his chair, ready for collision. Before the clank of steel on steel, sometimes there’s a squeal of fright, well, I squealed, before the oohs and aahs from the crowd.
Yet the Games can also be deathly silent. Some events are more like a library but for the jingle of the ball, in the football five-a-side or goalball for vision impaired athletes.
Even at a medal ceremony, where it’s not the clink, clank of medals around necks but in Rio 2016, the rattle of the medal, with different tones depending on the colour to go with the braille embossed on the surface. I never did find out what the gold sounded like.
But I don’t just love the Paralympics because they are the greatest sporting event, which assault your senses and blow your mind. I love the Games because they are also a catalyst for social change.
From the beginning, the Games have always been about more than sport. The modern Paralympic motto “Spirit in Motion” tells part of the story, but it goes back more than 70 years to a small hospital in the United Kingdom.
Stoke Mandeville lies about 65 kilometres north-west of London. A village of about 6,000 people, just past World’s End (yes, that’s really a place … I told you I’d take you beyond Earth) on the outskirts of Aylesbury. While being past World’s End may sound alarming, Stoke Mandeville is the place where it all began for me and thousands of other Paralympians. Not just in a sporting sense.
Sir Ludwig Guttmann established the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1943, chiefly for the treatment and rehabilitation of war pilots with spinal injuries. Guttmann was a pioneer in using active rehabilitation for people with disabilities and his work with these veterans led to the birth of the first organised event for people with disabilities, the Stoke Mandeville Games.
The Games were held in the 1940s and 1950s, and at the 1956 Stoke Mandeville Games, Guttmann was presented with the Sir Thomas Fearnley Cup by the International Olympic Committee for service to the Olympic movement. I’d like to think the awarding of Uncle Thomas’s cup (well, I like to call him “Uncle”), was the final catalyst needed to launch the first Paralympic Games in Rome 1960.
There have been 14 editions of the Games held since Rome, each leaving their own impact on the athletes, the crowds of hundreds, up to millions in recent times as the Paralympics reach lounge rooms around the world, and the cities where events are held.
We all know the difference the Games made to Sydney in 2000. The former swamp on the outskirts of the city, turned into a place of happiness and joy where people now come together to celebrate sport, music and the arts. And this year, as the centre of the state’s response to beat COVID-19 as a major vaccination hub.
I’ve been lucky enough to see the difference Paralympics can make firsthand around the world, as I was lucky enough to wear the green and gold at five of them.
From the lights of Sydney in 2000 as a plucky 19-year-old where I saw disability celebrated in my country for perhaps the first time. On to Athens in 2004 where I first got my hands on gold but also where I took a purpose-built lift up to the Acropolis, which towers above the city.
In Beijing 2008, stadiums were overflowing and thousands upon thousands packed the streets to watch the performances of people with a disability.
Then perhaps the first standalone Games in London 2012, out of the shadows of its Olympic cousin, with billboards and newspapers plastered with Paralympic athletes for the first time.
And for me finally in Rio de Janeiro, my Paralympic swansong, where I handed over the green and gold to the next generation of athletes, who will proudly exhibit our community’s excellence to millions around the world, including here in Australia.
You’ll love the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, yes, still 2020 not 2021. I was meant to be there with my family cheering on the athletes as a fan rather than competitor for the first time. We would experience the senses together. The taste, the sights, the sounds. The silence.
Of course, that dream disappeared with so many others in the devastation of the pandemic we are living through. Instead, I’m in Melbourne, sharing the stories and performances of our Aussie team in Tokyo with the rest of the nation, including my family, watching the Games together at home, maybe in lockdown.
We’ve loved and celebrated the Olympics together this year, but the Paralympics will bring something else. Conversations about disability. Discussions around access and opportunity. About equality. Dreams of competing in Brisbane 2032 for kids with disability. Or making our plans to experience the assault on our senses first-hand together.