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The 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics: A Personal View

The author is interested in sporting events (including their characters, quirky facts and side stories) and the history of world sport.

By anyone's criteria—even those who have no real interest in sports—the Olympic Games can be seen to have developed over the past 100 years into the greatest, most spectacular festival on Earth. They are an exhibition of human athletic excellence that 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 parts of the world. This article contains my anecdotes, thoughts and feelings about the Olympics and Paralympics based upon the experience at the 2012 Games as well as some of the Games that have come before.

Jessica Ennis won gold for Britain in the heptathlon.

Jessica Ennis won gold for Britain in the heptathlon.

My Impressions of the Olympic and Paralympic Games

In 2012, my country (the UK) was the host of the 30th Olympic Games and the 14th Paralympic Games. As such, the coverage across British television (and I hope elsewhere) was 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, feel and spirit of the Games and watch more of the competitions. These are my personal impressions of the Games. This is not 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 was designed for the 2012 London Olympics.

The Olympic Park was designed for the 2012 London Olympics.

The start of the men's 100 metres final, arguably the most anticipated event of the 2012 Olympics, was won by Jamaican athlete Usain Bolt.

The start of the men's 100 metres final, arguably the most anticipated event of the 2012 Olympics, was won by Jamaican athlete Usain Bolt.

The Olympics

The Olympic Games today are a far cry from the prestigious yet parochial games of ancient Greece, and they're even a long way removed from the humble origins of the games of the modern era. In ancient Greece, the events featured participants only from the city-states of the Greek Empire. In the 1st Olympiad of the modern era in 1896, a mere 241 athletes from just 14 nations took part in only 43 events.

Following that inaugural contest, there was actually a brief period of some stagnation. Gradually, however, 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 athletes—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 athletes from all nations and backgrounds can gather together in a great festival of excellence and (hopefully) joyful participation. The 2012 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 runs in the heats of the 400m. This South African double-amputee is the most famous of all Paralympians.

Oscar Pistorius runs in the heats of the 400m. This South African double-amputee is the most famous of all Paralympians.

The Paralympics

The Paralympic Games grew out of the desire to allow everybody with disabilities both of a physical and/or intellectual nature to test themselves, enjoy competition,and strive for excellence in the same way as able-bodied athletes. 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.

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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 inextricably linked to the Olympic Games, taking place immediately after the event and in the same city. By the year 2012 in London, the event was attracting over 4,000 competitors from 164 nations in 22 distinctly different sports. It was 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 sense of national 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]

The Effort Required to Be an Olympian

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 5.30 p.m. until 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]

. . . 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, including 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—that 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.

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 homegrown 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.