If there was a danger of the nation falling into a pit of POD – post-Olympic despair – the perfect antidote is upon us: the Paralympic Games.
Today the Paralympics are coming home. In 1948, when London last staged the Olympics, a quiet revolution was taking place at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire. Dr Ludwig Guttmann was a neurologist who decided that injured servicemen had more life to live and more to give to the world than being left to rot in a hospital bed.
Guttmann devised a sporting competition for wheelchair archery. The event was the start of something vital, partly because of the sporting element, but more because of the change in attitude. Disability was no longer the end, but the beginning of a new and different life. What you could do, rather than what you couldn’t do. The Stoke Mandeville Games expanded into an international competition and, in 1960, the first Paralympic Games took place. Para as in parallel – they sit alongside the Olympic Games as a global showcase for sport.
I have covered three Paralympic Games for the BBC and will be part of the C4 team for this one. I am well aware that much as I love sport, it is essentially a trivial sideshow to real life – apart from this. The Paralympics is the one event that I believe make a difference to the way people think, the way they see their lives and the way they see the lives of others. They have an enormous power.
With two million tickets already sold, these will be the best-attended Paralympic Games ever, and those huge crowds will see 21 disciplines. Some of these will be familiar – athletics, swimming, cycling. Others will not – boccia, sitting volleyball and five-a-side football for the visually impaired. There is a classification system to ensure that each sport is fair and is played between athletes with a similar range of movement.
The intention, however, is the same as at any major sporting event: the best will win; those who have slacked in training won’t. For Team GB, the exuberant, confident Lee Pearson defends three titles in dressage as he tries to take his gold medal tally to 12. The quietly determined wheelchair racer David Weir will compete in four different races on the track.
Ellie Simmonds, who won gold in the 100m and 400m freestyle swimming events at the age of 13 in Beijing, defends her titles. Look out also for Nathan Stephens, who holds the javelin world record, Will Bayley in table tennis, Sarah Storey and Jody Cundy in cycling, Nigel Murray in boccia and Rachel Morris, who defends her handcycling title despite a careless driver crashing into her during training.
Team GB will win a hatful of gold medals because we’ve trained hard and we understand how to get the best out of people. But the message will reach further than the podium. Haiti, a nation where disabled babies are still abandoned, will send its first-ever team to a Paralympic Games. Russia, which refused to host the Paralympic Games in Moscow in 1980 because it claimed not to have any disabled people, will field its strongest team yet. The USA still has work to do in terms of broadcasting the Games – a highlights package shown months later doesn’t do much for the athletes or the audience.
As for Channel 4, it will broadcast more hours of live coverage than ever before. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll know there will be no sugarcoating, no patting of heads and saying, “There, there – well done for taking part.” I am proud to be a part of the team bringing it into your homes and I hope that the impact of these Games will be immense – and I can’t wait for them to start.
Watch the Paralympic Games, from tonight at 8:00pm on C4.
Channel 4 is the official Paralympic broadcaster. There is also coverage on More4, and the red button, plus BBC Radio 5 live.
Find out more about how to watch the Paralympic games.