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These Games are not a hospital fête

24 August 2012

Running the Paralympics with the Olympics would be true inclusion, says David Reason

THE 2012 Paralympics comes hot on the heels of the London Olympics, when, as I heard more than once, Great Britain "played host to the world", and "Team GB led the way in showcasing the best of Britain." But I am intrigued by the yoking together of hospitality and competitive success, especially in a field where the culture of sport rubs against commercial and political machinations.

I want to explore this tension, mindful that these matters are particularly sharp as they touch on sports for people with disabilities - people who often feel unwelcome guests at a feast provided for them. The Paralympics can so easily be represented as an inflated hospital fête.

We are still caught up in fashioning a significant collective memory of the 2012 Olympics. It was a good time to be "proud of being British", and it was easy to believe that we could forge a consensus in our perceptions. A quick scan of coverage in the People's Republic of China challenges this. The People's Daily had a rather scathing opinion:

"From the wrong national flag being hung for the North Korean women's football team . . . to losing keys to Wembley Stadium; from no toilets at the basketball hall, to one baffling penalty decision after another."

Yet even they could not stifle appreciation of the welcome extended by the volunteer helpers, the true games-makers. Praise for their good humour and competence echoed in the ebbing glow of the extinguished Olympic torch.

The volunteers were hailed as exemplary hosts, welcoming all for love, not money. If hospitality is anything, it is playing by the spirit of welcome and inclusion rather than merely adhering to some script of conduct designed to promote "customer satisfaction" and ratchet up sales. No, the experience of being welcomed is nothing if not a response to a movement of the spirit. It is not calculated compliance, but an embrace extended to the stranger.

There is a similar sentiment in sports culture. The object of competition is not to win at any cost, by any means. And not only is it frowned on to employ performance-enhancing drugs, but the competitor is expected to compete, to engage fully with the competition. Just as we may boo the pseudo-contest of two players' each attempting to lose for tactical advantage in their next match, so the mere protocol of hospitality feels hollow.

Although the principles and practices of hospitality have recently emerged as promising for the development of a "theology of disability" (as found in Thomas Reynolds's fine book Vulnerable Communion: A theology of disability and hospitality, Brazos Press, 2008, for example), matters are not straightforward. If hospitality is a matter of welcoming strangers, then, in order to display how hospitable we are (to ourselves as much as to others), we may come to see it as important to keep strangers as strangers - never quite to be included on the same footing as other members of our family and community.

It would feel decidedly odd to suggest that we "offer hospitality" to the family of one of our children: we invite them to share a home - our home, their home. That is an intimate relationship of dwelling together, which goes beyond hospitality. Of course, enjoying hospitality may be a step towards such dwelling together, but, until then, strangers remain strangers and guests, until the yeast of the gift of their otherness begins its transformative work.

The delicate difficulties of these matters can be sensed in the "inspirational dramas" that the BBC has screened to fanfare both the Olympics and Paralympics. The curtain-raiser for the Olympics focused on the struggle by two rowing athletes to overcome problems of fitness, technique, and social class. The hero of the corresponding harbinger of the Paralympics was not a competitor, but the doctor who conceived the idea and ideals of the Paralympics.

"Poppa" Ludwig Guttmann's intentions were presented as being to motivate and structure the rehabilitation of people with spinal injuries, particularly injured members of the armed forces; to validate and publicise his approach among the medical profession; and to promote the acceptance of people with disabilities. His ambition with regard to the last of these was eventually to have rehabilitated athletes competing alongside, but not with, Olympians.

It is not clear what he might have meant by this, however - perhaps that one day there would be an interleaving of Paralympic and Olympic events in the same programme and before the same audience, just as an evening's boxing would include bouts at different weights. Such a mischievous expression of hospitality and inclusion would certainly upset the TV schedules.

In both Olympic and Paralympic competition, I think it important to resist the temptation to focus on the heroic excellence of the winners. All too easily, such a focus can shade into a conviction that personal worth can be measured in medals. Targeting government funding on activities that are most likely to enhance the haul of gold promotes this possibility. Instead, we must judge athletes as athletes: anything less diminishes their standing and serves to puff up the importance of such impairment as marks their stranger-ness.

This, then, is the question posed by my initial puzzlement: is it right to think of nourishing our relationship with those with disabilities by "offering hospitality"? We must accept, I think, that people with disabilities experience complex relations of exclusion, and some of these involve a masquerade of inclusion. What I have called "commercialised hospitality" and "ensuring the stranger remains a stranger" are among them.

Yet hospitality is none the less an appropriate term to describe that relationship of welcoming the stranger as a gift - as bringing something unique, which can illuminate our own existence, and which is always conceived as a transitional moment, as setting the stage for sharing full community and full communion.

This is the import, surely, of the final lines of Rowan Williams's "Rublev", a poem inspired by Andrei Rublev's icon of the Trinity, which pictures the three angels to whom Abraham and Sarah extend hospitality in Genesis 18. The welcome to all who come in the parched desert is a springboard into communion: "But we shall sit and speak around one table, share one food, one earth."

Of course, welcoming the stranger is not the same as rejecting difference, but rather of enfolding distinctness, of treating the guest as his or her own person and celebrating his or her vulnerable autonomy, which we all share. Bringing the Paralympics fully into the same arena as the Olympics would not erase the differences between events or athletes, any more than Rublev's icon shows us to be one with the angelic visitors, but would go far towards putting in first place the common endeavour of a sports contest.

Dr David Reason is a former Master of Keynes College at the University of Kent.


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