Paralympic Games: opening ceremony brings Britain back to life
A nation that suffered a petit mort at the end of the Olympic Games less than a fortnight ago took the opportunity to come back to life on Wednesday night and pick up exactly where it left off as the Paralympic Games opened with another opening ceremony taking its text from The Tempest while surveying the sweep of British history.
Prefacing 11 days of competition, the theme of the gala was enlightenment. That turned out to involve anything from Handel’s Eternal Source of Light Divine to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and from the apple falling in Isaac Newton’s Lincolnshire garden to Stephen Hawking’s celebration of the Higgs particle. The great astrophysicist and Sir Ian McKellen, in the guise of Prospero, shared the MC duties, with Nicola Miles-Wildin, as Miranda, intoning Shakespeare’s key lines: “O wonder! / How many goodly creatures are there here! / How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, / That has such people in’t!”
This time all the Queen had to do was turn up and make a short speech. Nobody invited her to follow her scene-stealing role alongside James Bond by joining Pan’s People or singing a duet with Beverley Knight. Like the rest of the 80,000 in the Stratford stadium, she sat and watched a Paralympic opening ceremony that cast the spotlight on the role of science in helping to change social attitudes and culminated in the lighting of the 205 new petals of Thomas Heatherwick’s long-stemmed cauldron, the flame swooping down from the top of Anish Kapoor’s adjacent tower, carried on the last stage of its journey by an athlete attached to a zip wire.
“Prepare to be inspired, prepare to be dazzled, prepare to be moved,” Sebastian Coe told the spectators. He was talking about the 503 events in which medals will be won, but he could have been describing the uncompromising climax of a four-hour gala, which came with a performance of Ian Dury’s Spasticus Autisticus by members of the Graeae Theatre Company and the appearance of a giant version of Marc Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant, the sculpture of the limbless woman that once looked down from the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. They left no doubt about why we were here â€“ and about how far we have come since Ludwig Guttmann, the Silesian neurosurgeon who arrived in England as a refugee from Hitler, identified the possibility of using sport to aid the recovery of paralysed servicemen and women who had previously been considered beyond salvation.
Facing the world’s media this week, the South African runner Oscar Pistorius, whose legs were amputated in infancy, made the point that Paralympic athletes want to be judged not on disability but on ability. In other words, the 4,200 competitors from 164 countries would rather you enjoyed their skills than felt pity for their missing limbs. The fact remains, however, that this bunch of inhabitants of the London 2012 athletes’ village come with more voluminous baggage than the former occupants. They simply have more gripping stories. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be here.
It is thanks to them that we now know something about the implications of being born without a fibula in either leg (Pistorius), with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita (Lee Pearson, the flamboyant holder of nine equestrian gold medals from Sydney, Athens and Beijing), or without hands or feet (the Brazilian swimmer Daniel Dias). We have learned to recognise the possibilities for achievement that remain despite jumping into a swimming pool and breaking your neck (female wheelchair rugby player Kylie Grimes), losing a leg to infantile meningitis (teenage 100m prodigy Jonnie Peacock), or losing both legs under a railway train (javelin thrower Nathan Stephens) or on a Circle Line train on 7/7 (sitting volleyball player Martine Wright).
We have been nudged, most of all, towards a deeper understanding of the word “transformation”, as employed so tellingly by Guttmann, whose intention in founding the Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralysed, he said, was “to transform a severely disabled patient into a taxpayer”.
There was no sentimentality about Guttmann. A black-and-white film clip shows him responding to a bedridden patient who confesses to a loss of belief in his recovery. “Now cut that out, will you,” the doctor snaps, the crispness of his delivery perhaps only marginally exaggerated for the camera. His reward, before his death in 1980, was to see the start of the transformation of his modest concept into the Paralympics, and thereby a transformation in the public perception not just of disabled athletes but of disability in general.
Pistorius talked this week of his personal experience of that process. In supermarkets, he said, parents still sometimes turned their children away from the sight of his prosthetic legs. But once he gets a chance to talk to the children, perhaps telling them that his original legs dropped off because he failed to eat his vegetables, the sense of shock and otherness disappears quickly and for good.
He noted with approval that the young people who turned up for the Paralympic day in Trafalgar Square a year ago “didn’t have the normal reactions that people show to disabled athletes â€“ they were friendly and excited.” The United Kingdom, he added, had dealt with disabled people “in a very amazing way â€“ a lot of people around the world will be forced to see the Paralympics through the eyes of people in the UK, and that’s a fantastic thing.”
These Games are the real thing, all right, mirroring the Olympics in all sorts of ways. They have their own rows over illegal performance enhancement, in the form of blood-boosting achieved through various methods of self-torture unsuitable for description in a family newspaper. A Paralympics sponsor â€“ Atos, which tests the fitness for work of disabled people on behalf of the government â€“ is accused of using its association with the event to launder its image. And there is a dispute over the ability of the Paralympics to create a meaningful legacy at a time when disabled people in the UK are suffering from severe cuts to the employment and support allowance. Part of the real world, indeed, sharing and sometimes highlighting its real and intractable problems. But, for the next 11 days, as we learn the rules of boccia and sitting volleyball, enjoy the visceral thrill of the wheelchair races and watch blind people playing football by ear and touch, we too will be playing a full part in squeezing the last drops of enjoyment from a Â£9.3bn investment that seems to have delivered the goods.