As a one-legged comedian who is about to host a nightly Paralympics highlights show on Channel 4, I have only one piece of advice for anyone attempting to navigate the politically correct minefield that is discussing disabilities in sports.
Never refer to the Olympics as “the normal Olympics”. Apart from that, you’re all good.
Seriously, there’s no need to worry about saying the wrong thing during the Paralympics because 1) you will say the wrong thing, no matter how hard you try not to and 2) it’s OK as long as you’re not actually trying to be offensive.
The thing is, the Paralympians are aware of how weird it is to be surrounded by people with disabilities. It’s an unusual occurrence for them too, and believe me they find it funny as hell.
I was lucky enough to be involved with Australian TV coverage of the Beijing Paralympics in 2008, and witnessed first hand the joy and the humour that can come from being surrounded by people with disabilities.
I heard a story of a Swedish athlete who was spotted walking through the athlete’s village wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Yes, he’s my boyfriend.” Below those words was an arrow pointing down at the dwarf with whom she was holding hands.
I was told by one wheelchair athlete that they glue poppy seeds to the buttons in elevators in order to confuse blind competitors. I heard one joke about using the Paralympic classification system to measure drunkenness that is frankly so offensive that even now I can’t bring myself to put it in print.
Of course Paralympians can get away with telling jokes about disabilities, simply because they are disabled themselves. It all hinges on where the joke is coming from, and that is the key. If you find yourself discussing the Paralympics and accidentally saying something inappropriate, please don’t panic. As long as your intention is true, and you’re not trying to ridicule, belittle or in any way talk down to disabled people, no one is going to take offence.
Take, for example, the Australian wheelchair Paralympian who lost his legs in a car accident in his teens, and went on to win a gold medal in Sydney in 2000. He was asked with all best intentions by a journalist at the post-race press conference, “Has it always been your dream to win a Paralympic medal?”
With a grin, an accent and an attitude that can only come from an Aussie he replied, “Not when I could walk.”
The Paralympics is one of the most life-affirming events you will ever see. The joy of being in a packed stadium, as thousands of people cheer on wheelchair basketballers, amputee swimmers, blind footballers and runners with cerebral palsy is unparalleled.
These are elite athletes who have trained non-stop for at least the last four years to be here, and all they want is to represent their nation, compete to the best of their ability, and hopefully take home a medal.
What they’d like from you is your support. Cheer them on, celebrate their achievements, and let yourself be amazed by the feats of strength, speed and agility you witness. And keep an eye out for the moment you forget you’re watching people with disabilities, and realise you’re experiencing world-class competitors pushing their bodies to their limits.
If you do all that, no one will care if you accidentally call someone the wrong name.
Oh, and if you’re still wondering how to refer to the Paralympics, just call them “the Paralympics”. Never call them “the normal Olympics”. Paralympians bloody hate that.