The Olympics and the Paralympics; A Personal View from London 2012

Logo of the 2012 London Olympics
Logo of the 2012 London Olympics
Logo of the 2012 London Paralympics
Logo of the 2012 London Paralympics | Source


By anyone's criteria - even those who have no real interest in sport - the Olympic Games can be seen to have developed over the past 100 years into the greatest, most spectacular festival on Earth - an exhibition of human athletic excellence which encourages and achieves worldwide participation, and attracts worldwide media coverage.

In recent years, another related sporting event - the Paralympics - has begun to attract similar attention, at least in some nations of the world. This page is my page of anecdotes, thoughts and feelings about the Olympics and Paralympics, based upon the experience of the 2012 Games, and the Games which have gone before.

Jessica Ennis, who won Gold for Britain in the heptathlon
Jessica Ennis, who won Gold for Britain in the heptathlon | Source

My Impressions of the Olympic and Paralympic Games

In 2012, my country was the host of the Games of the 30th Olympiad and the Games of the 14th Paralympics. As such the coverage across British television (and I hope elsewhere) was very considerable. The coverage, and of course the convenience of the time zone in which the main events took place, gave me the opportunity to take in much more of the atmosphere, and the feel and spirit of the Games, as well as watching rather more of the competition. These are my personal impressions of the Games - they will not be a factual list of the sporting achievements of the great and famous athletes - there are plenty of sports pages and websites which cover those. Rather, my interest is to present a potpourri of brief thoughts and anecdotes. Some are (I hope) amusing, some are controversial. Some highlight all that is good about the games, and some highlight all that is bad. These are purely my own thoughts.

Before these thoughts are presented, a brief introduction to the history of the two festivals is required. My reflections will follow these two sections.

The Olympic Park, designed for the London Olympics
The Olympic Park, designed for the London Olympics | Source
The start of the men's 100 metres final - arguably the most anticipated event of the 2012 Olympics, won by Jamaican Usain Bolt
The start of the men's 100 metres final - arguably the most anticipated event of the 2012 Olympics, won by Jamaican Usain Bolt | Source

The Olympics

The Olympic Games today are a far cry from the prestigious yet parochial games of ancient Greece, and even a long way removed from the humble origins of the games of the modern era. In ancient Greece, the events featured participants from just the city states of the Greek Empire, whilst in the 1st Olympiad of the modern era in 1896, a mere 241 athletes from just 14 nations took part in 43 events. Following that inaugural contest there was actually a brief period of some stagnation but gradually the Olympics began to blossom, with both summer and winter events developing. In recent decades, the combination of sponsorship money, extensive media coverage, a heightened sense of national prestige, and increasing ease of international travel, have enabled the Olympics to expand out of all proportion to its origins. Some would say it has developed too far, in that it has become a multi-billion dollar enterprise, a business interest as much as a sporting interest, and a competition between governments rather than sportsmen, for the honour of hosting the event. The importance of achieving victory in the new professional age, and the global attention the Olympics now receives, have led to all kinds of issues from shamateurism and commercialism, to drug abuse and issues of discrimination, to national boycotts and terrorist atrocities. For all the negativity of these controversies, the Olympics now offer a way in which all sportsmen from all nations and backgrounds can gather together in a great festival of excellence and (hopefully) joyful participation. The most recent games in London attracted about 10,800 athletes from 204 nations. The Olympics is indeed the greatest gathering of people from around the world today. [1][2]

Oscar Pistorius in the heats of the 400m - this South African double-amputee is the most famous of all Paralympians
Oscar Pistorius in the heats of the 400m - this South African double-amputee is the most famous of all Paralympians | Source

The Paralympics

The Paralympic Games grew out of the desire to allow everybody with disabilities both of a physical and an intellectual nature to test themselves, to enjoy competition, and to strive for excellence in just the same way as anyone who is able-bodied. The event (which takes its name from 'Parallel-Olympics) developed from the International Wheelchair Games first organised by Stoke Mandeville Hospital in England in the same year as the London Olympics of 1948. The initial aim was to provide competitive activities for disabled servicemen of World War Two. When the event was held again four years later in 1952, a Dutch team joined in, and thus was born an international competition for the disabled. It was in 1960 that the first official Paralympics took place in Rome with 400 athletes from 23 countries. Gradually the event began to grow with both summer and winter games as well as events for the non-wheelchair disabled. In Seoul in 1988 the Summer Paralympics became inextrixcably linked to the Olympic Games, taking place immediately after that event and in the same city. By the year 2012 in London, the event was attracting over 4000 competitors from 164 nations in 22 distinctly different sports - a truly major festival of sport with all the trappings (both welcome and less appealing) of the Olympics - sponsorship, drug testing, tight security, and a national sense of pride. Above all, the Games offer the very best opportunity today for large numbers of disabled people to be seen for exactly what they are - human beings with all the same virtues and failings as the rest of us, and a desire to be treated as such. [3][4]

Olympians - The Effort ...

Olympic athletes and sportsmen - and even more so the Paralympians - are not like the hyped up superstars of so many other sports. In Britain we have footballers (soccer players) who are paid a vast fortune. And we all know how much the top golfers, tennis players, basketball players and baseball players earn. And they earn it every week of the year when they play. They come out each week to cheers and chants and whoops of delight, as they receive the collective adulation of the fans. And if they have a bad day at the office, it's no big deal. Because one week later they've got another chance to come out and maybe score the winning goal, sink the winning putt, or hit the winning run. They remain constant heroes to many.

But the great majority of Olympians are different. The canoeists, the show jumpers, the fencers, the archers, the sailors, the Greco-Roman wrestlers, the divers, the table tennis players - many of these get no media recognition for four hard years of effort, and get very little in the Games themselves unless they finish first, second or third. They may have no individual sponsorship, and many are pure amateurs - and yet they may put in at least as much effort to get to the top of their chosen sport as the superstars of the television sports are required to do.

The training schedules of some Olympians says it all. When British diver Tom Daley was 14 years old, he was having to go straight from school each day of every week to train from 5.30pm till late in the evening, when most other teenagers would be out having fun with their friends. It paid off with a Bronze medal in 2012 [5]. Swimmers likewise have to start young and those with potential may be doing 25 hours plus per week whilst also having to contend with school work [6]. Even elite swimmers like double Gold medal winner Rebecca Adlington have to get up in the small hours to train, because the pools they use are public pools, and this is the only time of day they can have the facilities to themselves. And the swimming is only a part of it, as after the pool work comes strength training and gym work [7]. And distance runners likewise, may be pounding the streets hour after hour, doing up to a hundred miles per week, and far more than this as they build towards the Games [8].

The Agony and the Ecstasy

South Korea’s Shin A-Lam in floods of tears after a purely technical infringement led to her disqualification in a fencing contest
South Korea’s Shin A-Lam in floods of tears after a purely technical infringement led to her disqualification in a fencing contest | Source
Britain's Katherine Copeland and Sophie Hosking in floods of tears after winning Gold in the lightweight double sculls
Britain's Katherine Copeland and Sophie Hosking in floods of tears after winning Gold in the lightweight double sculls | Source

... and the Emotion

Of course it's not just the many years of hard physical training all focused on one goal - the Olympic goal - there is also the psychological strain; the strain on families, the strain of holding down a job while fitting in all of the training, and a sense of responsibility to the entourage which goes with modern sport - the coaches, physios and nuitritionists. So perhaps it is not surprising that when Olympians do taste success - or disappointment - the emotions they experience are out of all proportion to those in many other sports. Years of hard grind and determination, social deprivation and ambition, all come welling up at the moment when it all pays off or when 'failure' makes all the previous years of effort seem wasted.

It is these moments - more than the actual races and contests - which constitute the most memorable pieces of drama from the Olympics and the Paralympics as competitors exhibit the whole gamut of emotions such as ecstasy and happiness and relief, tears and despair and devastation.

It's all there in these photographs.

Sophie and Katherine as it dawns on them that they have won Gold
Sophie and Katherine as it dawns on them that they have won Gold | Source

Patriot Games?

I must admit I’m not the most instinctively patriotic of people. Why should I be? Is it not a form of discrimination? Today we are (quite rightly) condemned if we support someone because their colour or race is the same as ours. We are at pains to suggest that all religions are equally deserving of respect. We believe in equal rights without favouritism for either sex. So why is it OK to cheer someone on just because of an accident of birth or where they live? Why support a Brit (who may not be a nice guy) against a German or an American or indeed an Iranian who may well be the personification of virtue? Now having said all of that, I will admit to supporting the British athletes - but only to a limited extent. I support them on the grounds that through the British media I know something about their life stories so there is an identification with their lives. And because it makes the games more exciting if you can cheer someone on, and in the absence of any other criterion, one may as well support someone with common nationhood. It does not, however, take much for me to be a turncoat. If I feel that the British athlete in a race is arrogant or humourless or ruthless, then I can easily switch allegiance to a good natured adversary, or someone who has struggled against great heartache or great adversity to compete.

A Nation's Pride? - The Paralympics

If pride in Olympic success should be tempered by questions of how that success may have been bought, pride in Paralympic success is very different. I can have considerable pride in Britain's Paralympic success in recent years. Likewise I feel that China - despite concerns over their sports programme expressed opposite - may have reason to feel justifiable pride in their recent dominance of the Paralympics. It is arguably one of the more commendable elements of that country's recent developments [10]. The disabled people of the world - paraplegics, amputees, those with cerebral palsy and those with intellectual disorders - have long been disadvantaged in society, and it is only right and proper that civilised nations should not only enable such people to have equal opportunities under the law, but should also put resources into providing opportunities so that they can extend themselves and pursue their goals in sport - something denied to past generations. Success of a nation's Olympians can (not always the case) show a distorted sense of a nation's priorities - success of any nation's Paralympians can hopefully show that the nation has a sense of moral and social respect for all within society.

A Nation's Pride? - The Olympics

If I do not feel a great need to support athletes of my nationality, should the nation feel a need to show pride in the achievements of our athletes? Many in the media and in politics like to express immense pride in the success of the nation's sports stars. Why? Of course many sports such as tennis and golf (apart from the Davis Cup and Ryder Cup) tend to be individual in competition rather than nation against nation, and people find it easier to support a foreign star rather than a home grown star in these sports. The Olympics, on the other hand, are an extreme example of sport in which the nationality of the sportsman is forefront with national colours, national flags and national anthems, and when a sportsman competes under the banner of a nation, then the nation tends to show pride in their achievements. I would suggest that a nation's success in sport is not something to take great pride in, because success in sport in the modern era often implies a distorted set of values. It frequently implies that a country has put more money into the prestige of sporting success, and correspondingly less into the more important fields of education, health and social services. It may also imply ruthless exploitation of young athletes for the glorification of the state. Many feel that China today may be an example of this, notably since stories emerged of children being taken from their parents and schools and subjected to intense training schedules under the control of the state [9]. The worst example however in recent decades was the East German state - the so-called German 'Democratic' Republic - in the 1970s; there was nothing democratic about that place, and sport was used purely to score prestige points. Money was thrown at sport which could have been better spent on improving living conditions for the people. And subsequently what many had assumed at the time has emerged as the truth - drugs played a major part in East German success. The moment East Germany was absorbed into the more civilised values of a genuine democratic Germany in 1989, the success began to evaporate. It had been a sham success by a sham country and the success should have been a source of pride for nobody. The reduced Olympic success of a united Germany today is much more worthy of respect than the huge Olympic success of the long defunct East Germany.

Paralympic Rugby - GB against USA
Paralympic Rugby - GB against USA | Source

Fantastic, Amazing and Incredible Hyperbola at the Games

Weren't the London Olympics just the most brilliant, unbelievable, amazing and fantastic games ever? Well, for the number of hyperbolic adjectives expressed - maybe so! Britain is the birth place of the English language, and the birth place of many of its finest exponents. The language is full of very descriptive adjectives, and certainly in many commentaries and interviews at the Olympic Games, some of the best were used again and again. And again. and again ... until I began to wish the words had never been invented. Let me explain. Nothing in the minds of popular sports presenters can ever be expressed in normal terms any more. If something was good or great in the past, then it must go one better today (in much the same way as in the film world 'Alien' became 'Aliens', 'Predator' inevitably became 'Predators' and in 'Jurassic Park 3' they had to come up with a creature even bigger than a T. rex!) Thus terms like 'good' and 'interesting' to describe sporting contests, have been replaced by 'brilliant' and 'unbelievable'.

Just for fun - and being a sad individual - I did a brief survey of adjectives used in some of the interviews and commentaries at the Olympics. The results of 378 superlatives used are tabulated here. I'm happy to report that the relatively modest 'great' did manage to come out on top, but the new phrase of choice seems to be 'fantastic' (same stem as 'fantasy') which was used an incredible number of times. 'Incredible' was used an amazing number of times, and 'amazing' was used an unbelievable number of times. 'Incredible' (too extraordinary to be credible) and the related 'unbelieveable' were used 47 times in total. I guess that must mean people are still shaking their heads in disbelief at those 47 achievements. 'Fabulous' (as in 'fable') and legendary were used 8 times. I guess that must mean 8 events will still be recounted in myths and legends a thousand years hence. 9 performances were 'perfect' so they presumably can't ever be improved upon. Sadly some old phrases ('awesome', 'terrific', 'superb', 'marvellous') seem to be going out of fashion, but plenty of athletes' performances were 'stunning', 'sensational' or 'phenomenal'. Not too many however were quite good, very good, really good, or indeed any other combination of just plain good. Isn't the English language just 'awesome'?

Gabriele Andersen-Schleiss

Stories of Guts and Determination ...

If the Olympics has been about effort and emotion described above, then it is also about guts and determination. The following are just three stories from the recent history - stories to think about in a sports world where contractual disputes have led to strikes by million dollar baseball stars, and prima donna footballers (soccer players) routinely writhe around in pretend agony seeking a penalty.

The first time the woman's marathon was ever run in 1984, American Jean Benoit was the winner. Back in 37th place was Swiss runner Gabriele Andersen-Scheiss, who entered the stadium in a very extreme state of distress resulting from heat exhaustion. Staggering and wandering across the track, it took her 5 minutes 44 seconds just to complete the final stadium lap. But she waved away medical help for fear of disqualification. The video above is not in English and is not great quality, but it is worth watching. Uploaded by VHSreportsVHS, it remains difficult even today not to be greatly moved as Gabriele finally crosses the line [11].

In 1992 a British 400m runner tore a hamstring very soon after the start of his semi-final. Despite being in agony, Derek Redmond hobbled and hopped all the way to the finish line, just because he wanted to complete his race. His father, seeing his distress, ran on to the track, put his arm round him, and assisted him to the finish, and a standing ovation. A video of Derek Redmond is available here.

And one from 2012 ...

In a very different vein, Italian Alex Zanardi was one of the stars of the Paralympics in 2012. Once an elite racing driver who competed at the highest level in Formula 1, and in Champ Car racing in America, Zanardi suffered a horrendous car crash in Germany in 2001, resulting in the amputation of both his legs. Undaunted at the end of his motor racing career, he decided to try his hand at a different kind of racing, and in 2012 came back to the top with two wheelchair road race Gold medals [12].

Sarah Attar of Saudi Arabia
Sarah Attar of Saudi Arabia | Source

... and Stories of Heroic 'Failure'

The Olympics should never be about winning, first and foremost. Only one person can win in any event, but many can achieve their own personal ambitions and show pride in their performance, and in so doing, may be more commendable than the one who wins the Gold. And fortunately, the crowd frequently recognise this fact.

Eddie 'the Eagle' Edwards was the first famous example of these hapless contestants who do their best just to take part. In Seoul in 1988, this GB ski jumper (the only GB ski jumper) was a rank amateur in a sport which is potentially lethal. He had to fund his own training, and due to poor sight he could barely see through his goggles. Unsurprisingly he finished last in both his jump competitions. According to one comment, he 'soared like a brick', but his desire to have a go means that he is more famous today than the far more accomplished athletes who finished ahead of him [13].

Eric Moussambani from Equatorial Guinea, acquired the nickname of 'Eric the Eel' at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. He was nominally a swimmer in the 100m freestyle event, but unfortunately Eric could barely swim! He'd taken up the sport at the beginning of the Olympic year, had never seen an Olympic sized pool, and didn't realise he had to swim 100m, rather than just 50m. He struggled to stay afloat till the end, and completed the 100m seven seconds slower than Australian gold medalist Ian Thorpe took to complete the 200m! Nonetheless, Eric the Eel got a standing ovation just for trying. A video of Eric Moussambani is available here.

And one from 2012 ...

The tradition of the underdog continued in London, and again, the crowd recognised the effort. And in this case they also acknowledged a ground breaking issue of equal rights as two females competed in the Olympics for Saudi Arabia for the first time. The two - Wojdan Shaherkhani in judo, and Sarah Attar in athletics - were only 16 and 19 respectively - and they faced some hostility in their intensely conservative home nation with some likening them to 'prostitutes' for having the audacity to take part in International sport. However, many felt differently, both inside Saudi Arabia and in the rest of the world. With automatic qualification, Sarah Attar took part in the 800m. She had no hope of winning, and she finished at least half a minute behind everyone else in the race, but the standing ovation she received recognised the courage and importance attached to just taking part [14]. Sarah herself has said:

  • 'It is such a huge honor to be able to represent Saudi Arabia as one of the first women to compete in the Olympics - I know that I am not the fastest but this is so much bigger than that.'

Far from being heroic 'failures', such athletes perhaps are more inspiring than a whole team of Gold medal winners.

Four of the volunteers show that anything Usian Bolt can do, they can do better
Four of the volunteers show that anything Usian Bolt can do, they can do better | Source

The Games Volunteers

In my country I am happy to report that almost the greatest admiration and respect at the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics was proffered not to the elite athletes, nor even to the games organisers, but rather to the great army of unpaid volunteers who helped to shepherd the visitors from one venue to the next, to answer questions posed by tourists and to generally keep the atmosphere light and friendly. As many as 60,000 of these volunteers (also known as 'games makers') got involved in their distinctive purple and pink uniforms, and the response to their efforts has been extraordinary. Unheralded in advance of the Games when all the attention was on the preparations for the opening ceremony and anticipation of the key events, slowly but surely, the volunteers brought themselves to the forefront of the organisers' attention, and found their way into the hearts of so many of the visitors to the games. News stories started to spring up about them, and stories about the more individualistic of them appeared on Twitter and Youtube. Such a colossal enterprise as the Olympics cannot function without a huge organisational input - the Games volunteers provided an inexpensive, but more importantly an effective and good natured, solution to this problem.

Games Maker Video From London 2012

A lovely video uploaded to Youtube by London2012, the official channel of the London Olympics and Paralympics. Many videos can be watched on this home page, and many seem well worth watching.

Participants in the paralympic marathon
Participants in the paralympic marathon | Source

'The Last Leg'

The coverage in the UK of both the Olympics and Paralympics of 2012 was excellent. The Olympics was carried comprehensively by the BBC, and they did their usual thoroughly professional job. The Paralympics were covered by the independent station, Channel 4, and here I would like to mention just one of their programmes. The final programme each Paralympic day was called 'The Last Leg' - a good title for more than one reason. The show was presented by Australian comedian Adam Hills (who happens to have been born without a right foot) with others including journalist Alex Brooker (who has deformed arms and one leg), and it took an irreverent, comic look at the day's events in interviews with Paralympians. Why do I mention it? Because 'The Last Leg' was like a breath of fresh air - a show without political correctness, a show in which people joked about their disabilities and talked in a totally unselfconscious way. When people who are in a minority (whether they be from ethnic or racial minorities, or whether they have disabilities) can feel sufficiently comfortable with their place in society to be able to laugh at themselves, then the barriers of discrimination and prejudice are truly beginning to break down. This show - and the Paralympic Games it reviewed - helped break down a few more barriers.

Sports Personality of the Year - Paralympic Inspiration (2)

The Olympics are a spectacle of great talent. The Paralympics are also a spectacle of talent, but much more so are they a spectacle of inspiration. At the 'Sports Personality of the Year Awards', apart from the 'Personality of the Year' (mentioned opposite) several other awards are bestowed. Of interest here are two of these other awards given to Paralympians.

Josef Craig won the 'Young Sports Personality of the Year'. Josef won Gold as a 15 year old in the 400m freestyle swimming in the category which includes cerebral palsy sufferers.

Marline Wright was the winner of the 'Helen Rollason Award'. Helen Rollason was a young BBC sports journalist who fought cancer for several years before succumbing, and the award in her name is given to particularly inspiring stories of sport. The award to Marline is worth describing. On 6th July 2005 London won the bid for the 2012 games, amid great celebrating. It was for many one of the great days in the recent history of the capital. But the very next day was one of the worst. Four terrorist bombs exploded on the London transport system killing 52 people. The contrast between the two days could not have been greater, and yet one person was later to unite the two by turning tragic adversity into triumph. Marline Wright lost both her legs in one of the blasts. Yet just seven years later she was participating in the Paralympics in the British volleyball team. A police woman who saved her life was on stage at the BBC when the award was presented.

Sports Personality of the Year - Paralympic Inspiration (1)

Every December the BBC hosts the most prestigious of all sports awards ceremonies in Britain. This is 'Sports Personality of the Year', in which the nation's most successful sports stars of that year are celebrated, and the public get to vote on the winner of the 'Personality of the Year'. At the end of 2012, there were twelve contenders in the shortlist, of which three were Paralympian - no less than 25% of those considered the most inspiring or successful sportsmen and women of the year were disabled. The three selected were:

David Weir: a wheelchair bound athlete who won Gold medals at four distances covering an extraordinary range from 800m, through 1500m and 5,000m to the marathon.

Ellie Simmonds: a swimmer who has achondroplastic dwarfism. Ellie won two Golds plus two other medals in 2012.

Sarah Storey: a cyclist born without a functioning left hand. She won four Golds on the cycling track, 16 years after winning her fifth Gold at Atlanta in the entirely different discipline of swimming!

But if you're still wondering, the ultimate award of Sports Personality of the Year was won by Bradley Wiggins, the cyclist who won Gold at the Olympics less than a month after winning the Tour de France.

Guor Marial  of South Sudan. This new nation did not have an Olympic committee, so Guor had to compete in the marathon under the auspices of the Olympic flag.
Guor Marial of South Sudan. This new nation did not have an Olympic committee, so Guor had to compete in the marathon under the auspices of the Olympic flag. | Source

Final thoughts

These then are my recollections of the Olympics and Paralympics. The great stars who brought home Gold have been feted and celebrated many times over, but they are only part of the story of these Games. I have deliberately given them little attention here. The Games are much bigger than that, and should hold something of interest even for those who don't like sport. The Games can offer an inspirational determination to succeed against the odds and a determination to overcome prejudice. They can offer a chance for athletes from the most deprived backgrounds and from the most disadvantaged nations to meet and compete at the highest levels.

The important thing is for everyone, including all the world's media, to recognise this - to be less nationalistic and win-orientated, to enter into the spirit of the Games, and to respect those who truly deserve our respect.

The Closing Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics
The Closing Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics | Source


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I'd Love to Hear Your Comments. Thanks, Alun 2 comments

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Greensleeves Hubs 3 years ago from Essex, UK Author

My warm thanks AliciaC. I appreciate that. I wanted to reflect the fact that I often find the personal stories of the athletes at least as interesting as the events. The events can be really exciting to watch, but the stories behind the people who take part - even the ones who finish last - are often more illuminating and emotional for what they tell us about their characters and backgrounds. Alun.

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AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

This is a wonderful hub, Alun. I loved reading your thoughtful analysis of the games and agree with all your opinions. It is so refreshing to read a review of the games that doesn't discuss the star athletes or the number of medals won by each country!

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