We heard a lot about the legacy which the Olympics would bring during the run up to the games. I doubt many of us really believed that after a few weeks of sport we would be a richer, healthier nation, inundated with tourists keen to boost our economy. We’ve already had news of depressed retail sales figures, but with boosts for junk food sales, as we all stayed on the couch to watch the games on TV rather than going out shopping. The Games will no doubt be the next excuse we hear for continuing negative growth.
The Olympics were though, a more touching and momentous occasion than the organisers could have hoped for and I think I’m fairly typical of millions of people who found ourselves putting our default Cynical setting on hold, forgetting all the tawdriness of sponsorship and brand policing (I can’t remember any of the sponsoring organisations, I’m glad to say) and getting swept up by the spectacle and the spirit, from Danny Boyle’s brilliant NHS-celebrating opening ceremony, through all of the triumphs and disasters on the track and field.
That opening ceremony and the triumphs of Jessica, Mo, Bradley et al are already fading, but whilst I remain sceptical about the economic or sporting legacy of the games, surely the real legacy will come from the Paralympics (or Power Olympics as my friends’ five year old thinks they’re called), which have leapt out of the shadow of their bigger budget cousin and brought us more positive images of disabled people in a few days than most of us see in the media in a lifetime.
It’s been interesting to watch my young children’s reaction to the games and to the athletes. They are not completely politically correct, it has to be said. My six year old chortles when the blindfolded five a side footballers bump into each other. But I think that may be because he watches the matches, as with all the events, without any sense of condescension or pity -and he certainly cheers the goals just as wildly as he does for any other football match in which ‘we’ are playing. Whilst there has been lots of media desire for athletes to have heroic/ tragic backstories, watching the games themselves, you very quickly becomes absorbed in the sport, not focused on the impairment of the people involved.
In a world where people with impairments are often invisible in the media, there are of course dangers in two weeks’ of news in which every disabled person is an elite athlete. The anti-Atos protests about shoddy welfare benefits assessments have brought a little complexity into the simplistic narratives which sport produces. But the Paralympics has acted like a large dose of exposure therapy upon the UK’s prevailing disability-phobia. It was only three years ago that CBeebies’ children’s TV presenter Cerrie Burnell, who was born with one arm, was subjected to complaints and worse from parents claiming her appointment would scare their children. (My kids were CBeebies viewers at the time she joined the channel and as far as I could tell, either didn’t notice her missing hand, or simply didn’t see it as unusual or interesting). It’s hard to imagine that kind of phobic predujice post-Paralympics.
This isn’t to say that prejudice and inequality will suddenly melt away. But it’s heartening to know that, having cheered on such incredible feats of athleticism, when my kids see a disabled person now, they will be much more likely to be thinking, “I wonder what they can do?” than guessing the things they can’t.