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A legacy of inspiration and acceptance

by
07 October 2016

Kelvin Woolmer wonders at the world’s failure to recognise and enjoy the achievements of Paralympians

PA/WCDIRECT

Looking up: Dame Sarah Storey wins the women’s-cycling road race C4-5 at the Paralympics in Rio last month

Looking up: Dame Sarah Storey wins the women’s-cycling road race C4-5 at the Paralympics in Rio last month

I WATCHED from afar the Olympic games in Rio in August; then, in September, I watched the Paralympics, marvelling at the abilities of our athletes, as I hobbled around on crutches, after an operation.

I was reminded of the London Olympics of 2012, where I was the senior chaplain to the Olympic construction workers for six years, and then one of the chaplaincy team for the London Olympics Media Centre.

The period of the Olympics was a whirlwind of news releases and press conferences, all of which the chaplains in the Centre got to join in. During the Olympics, every media event was jam-packed with camera crews and journalists from around the world, gathered there to record everything.

On the last night of the 2012 Olympics, my wife and I were watching the closing ceremony on the TV, and when the moment came for the firework display we rushed out of our vicarage in Stratford, and looked across to the Olympic Stadium, which was less than a mile from our front door. Along with everyone else in the street, we oohed and aahed at the display. It was a superb ending to a great event, and to six years of my life as the first-ever Olympic construction chaplain.

The next day, I went back into the Olympic Park, and entered the media hub. I found a completely different place. Gone were many of the TV corporations that had filled the offices to bursting point; gone were 90 per cent of the journalists from around the world. American, Chinese, Asian, Indian, and South American TV companies, and many more, had rolled their 40-foot lorries in during the night, dismantled all their equipment, and driven it away. Overnight, it had become a ghost town. I asked an American TV cameraman what had happened. Where was everyone?

I was shocked by his answer. It seems that in 2012 the only countries interested in the Paralympics were the UK, Australia, and Canada. Every TV company had to “buy into” the Paralympics to show them on the TV channels in their home countries. In the rest of the world, apparently, no one was interested in watching disabled people “doing sport”. He said that NBC might give it 30 minutes of air time, provided it was worth it, and then only if it was American athletes winning gold.

 

I WATCHED the build-up to the Rio Paralympics, and did not see much to suggest that the rest of the world had changed its mind about this great event, or realised that disabled people do have value, and that they can be sportsmen and -women.

Even the Rio organisers spent a large portion of the Paralympic budget on the Olympics, because there seemed to be an attitude of “So what? Who cares?” about disabled people. The BBC seemed to abrogate its prime-time viewing to another channel, so that it could get on with showing us how celebrities dance, and how people in aprons can make the best cake for Britain.

As we watch people who are less physically able in some way, it is a good time for us, who might call ourselves “able-bodied”, to reflect on how much we take our own health for granted. At the moment, I am full of aches and pains, but at least I have the knowledge that I should get better, and that the operation I had will have been worth every groan, as I return to full health.

To those who wake up in the morning and find “This is as good as I’m going to feel all day,” I give my total admiration. Whether it is a physical disability, or an unseen illness such as mental-health difficulties or cancer, you are a hero every day. You get on with life, even when it is hard and you feel like giving in — but you don’t.

 

IN 2012, we made great strides in changing the attitude in this country towards disability — saying how everyone has value, and can be helped to achieve his or her potential. Sadly, although some of us continue to encourage disabled people to climb the mountains that they face each day, the 2016 Paralympics did not seem to bring about much change in the rest of the world’s point of view.

Perhaps, as a national Church, we should become more involved in supporting the Paralympians: by praying more for them, offering more chaplaincy support, and by making their achievements known even more widely. Perhaps when the Church that says it values everyone does something to show that it truly does, we might begin to change others’ view as well.

Christ healed many who were outcasts in society, who suffered disabilities that prevented their being accepted in the world they inhabited. Once they were healed, they were able to live in their communities and be accepted as “normal”.

Let us pray that the rest of the world wakes up and sees the inspiration that these athletes can give to us, and recognises that same inspiration and determination in the people around us who are living with illness and disability. Let us pray that, through the Paralympic legacy, the less able in our communities know that they are an important part of our society, and are accepted by us. Even if the rest of the world forgets them, let us pray that we never do.

 

The Revd Kelvin Woolmer is the Vicar of St Thomas’s, Upshire, and St Lawrence’s, Ninefields, in the Waltham Abbey Team Ministry.

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