It was during the walk to the train that I felt I’d become part of a utopian future – as if in the course of a single summer the world had become a wiser, jollier and altogether nicer place. That train had been part of my life during the London Olympic Games of 2012, and it was playing a central role again as the astonishing Paralympic Games unwound.
I had been watching the great – in every sense save in size – Ellie Simmonds as she won one of her two gold medals in the pool. A good night, then, in a summer that was packed with good nights. And now it was time for the train. And it really was a great train. But it wasn’t your everyday sporting crowd. Many wheelchairs, many languages, many of the other punters clearly requiring some kind of consideration and understanding from the rest of us.
Among them, there were many sports fans who had been unlucky in the ticket ballot for the Olympics. They came to the Paralympics just to say they’d been part of it – and got more than they bargained for. So did I. We were all caught up in a world where disabilities and special needs were no longer a big deal.
Just a need to show slightly more after-you politeness than usual, that’s all – and it was easy because the Games themselves bathed everything in a joyous light. It really did seem that the world had improved drastically. The world, and each punter personally. Me included.
It was a world that I’d always longed to live in. My son Eddie, now 16, has Down’s syndrome, and a great deal of his happiness depends on the understanding of the world. And though the euphoria of a great night’s sport fades, the meaning of such good nights stays with us.
Disability is less frightening after you’ve cheered someone home in the Para sports. These sports are not only symptoms but drivers of changing attitudes. Those lucky enough to have able bodies find it a little easier to accept those with a different sort of luck for – well, for what they are.
I am what I am! Eddie has a regrettable fondness for power ballads, and he had adopted that unapologetic musical rant from John Barrowman as a personal anthem. The words have resonance with Barrowman because he’s gay; they have a special and perhaps still stronger meaning for Eddie because he is – what he is.
That sense of glorious defiance is part of all the Para sports, at least to begin with. This sentiment seemed to be embodied by Oscar Pistorius, and his murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in 2013 troubled us all. But in London in 2012 a new, and British, bladerunner was already preparing the ground for the changing of attitudes.
Jonnie Peacock won the 100 metres in the T44 category and did so in a way that was homely, cheeky, cheerful and rather splendidly matter-of-fact. This wasn’t the mythic glorification of the disabled athlete that Pistorius represented. Peacock showed us a deal-with-it attitude that was inspiring in a quite different way.
He went on to win the same event at the Rio Paralympic Games last year, in a time of 10.81 seconds, which is almost frighteningly quick. Peacock recalls 2012 with crystal clarity. As he told an RT colleague recently: “I was so young into the sport. I only thought I could make it about six months before, so it all came out of nowhere. And afterwards I realised it will be my greatest achievement ever. Going to sleep that night I knew nothing was going to top it. Nothing was ever going to be as amazing. But hopefully this [the world championships] is going to come close.”
We’ll find out just how close as, with his 50 British Athletics Para team colleagues, Peacock returns to the London stadium for ten days of world championship competition, with up to three hours of nightly coverage on Channel 4.
But here’s the strange thing about watching Para sport: the backstory stops mattering. It becomes less and less relevant. You don’t want to know how she got in that chair, you want to know if she’s going to win. And that’s because sport is a universal business and it cuts very deep.
I covered the Paralympic Games of 2012 as a journalist and I confess that before the start I felt out of my depth. I didn’t know how to write about all these people, performing so splendidly, with such dismaying and difficult backgrounds. And I discovered more or less on my first day that disabled sport is not about disability, it’s about ability. It’s about the straightforward business of winning and losing, and nothing else matters. Soon it becomes very clear that the childhood challenges of Jonnie Peacock are neither more nor less relevant than those of Usain Bolt.
What matters is the race: who wins and who loses. It’s just humans doing what humans love to do – and what we love to watch. Our response to Para sport starts in compassion and rapidly moves towards wonder – but it ends up in the last place you’d have expected: in complete normality.
It’s just sport. Just part of our lives. The cheerful decency on the way to the train hasn’t vanished. It’s there, often enough, for Eddie as he begins to build a more independent life. And that’s worth giving thanks for.
Jonnie Peacock goes for T44 100m gold on Sun 16 July
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