THEY love their kites in Rio de Janeiro.
Not those huge, mass-produced garish ones but tiny, unobtrusive diamonds that catch the light and your eye sometimes as they swoop like swallows above the urban sprawl of a maddeningly contradictory city.
In a way those kites were the perfect metaphor for the 2016 Paralympics.
Para athletes do their thing, year on year, largely unnoticed, while most of us and the media have our heads turned by a far shinier, noisier, better funded and better attended version of sport.
Yet, once you stop for a moment to watch Paralympians, it is like spotting one of those kites; impossible to tear your gaze away from their mesmerising movement and ability to soar above the ordinary.
Suddenly you find yourself hypnotised by a British women’s basketballer or an Egyptian table-tennis player or a Polish high jumper or an Italian swimmer or a Japanese track cyclist, all of whom you’ve never heard of before.
The great joy of being immersed in the Paralympics for the best part of two weeks is how it shines the spotlight on them and how swiftly they shift your perception. Initially you do that natural, reflexive human thing of noting people’s disabilities; clocking the false legs or misshapen arms and wheelchairs or crutches. Within a few days you are inured to the sight of missing limbs or impaired faculties and simply concentrate on the athletes.
Yes, you still notice athletes’ impairments, but only to wonder how someone with those disabilities can manage such athletic feats, analysing the biomechanics of their athleticism just as you would Usain Bolt or Rory McIlroy. The brain still struggles to comprehend how a visually impaired footballer can beat a sighted goalkeeper until you witness the dribbling wizardry of Brazil footballer Ricardinho, the man who, in the final of Rio’s Five-a-side tournament, finally broke the Iranian goalkeeper’s unbeaten record from play.
You see Egypt’s Ibrahim Hamadtou, the table-tennis player who lost both of his arms in a train accident when he was 10, and he blows your mind. He serves by throwing the ball up with his toes and strikes it with a bat he holds in his mouth, each quick flick of his head defying everything you imagined was physically possible.
“The disability is not in arms and legs,” he once said. “The disability is to not persevere in whatever you would like to do.”
You see the T11 women’s long jump, a sport utterly dependent on the timing and accuracy of take-off and gape at how unsighted athletes achieve it. Their assistants place them at the right starting point and themselves in front of the take-off board, and then guide them with their voice, stepping aside just when right they reach that last split-second point before flight. You witness the crowd go wild when local darling Silvania Costa de Oliveira wins T11 gold with a jump of 4.98m and then discover that she owns the world record of 5.46m which is almost 18 feet.
Your mind is equally boggled by the men’s T42 high jump, where Poland’s European champion Lukasc Mamczarz hops the whole run-up on his only leg while some of his competitors use crutches to get into position and then cast them aside for their short run-ups. You marvel at arm-less swimmers who are ultra-competitive in butterfly or backstroke, the latter needing to hold a toggle in their mouth at the start to hold themselves still in the water. Anyone who has ever done a triathlon knows how difficult it is to achieve proficiency in three different disciplines. So to witness the Paralympics’ first triathlon races – to see people with truncated limbs carried from the water then getting on their bikes and giving chase – is just as awe-inspiring as the Brownlee brothers.
You are equally fascinated by the skill of British wheelchair basketballer Amy Conroy who shoots 75% from the floor and can set a screen and feint a no-look pass with a deft, barely perceptible one-handed spin. Again and again you wonder at athletes’ skills and grace of movement, not their ability to overcome disability or illness, though that, obviously, magnifies your admiration.
Britain’s Kadeena Cox, is a 25-year-old physiotherapy student who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis two years ago. She has to inject herself and take almost 20 tablets every day, yet she won four medals (including two golds) and broke world records in two different sports (cycling and athletics) in Rio. Just by competing in cycling she has already broken one stereotype in a largely ‘white sport’ and hopes her high profile success will motivate other young black women – both able-bodied and disabled – to look seriously at cycling as a sporting option. Cox doesn’t know what next week, never mind next year, will bring in terms of her health, yet she has already declared her interest in competing in bobsleigh at the next Winter Paralympics.
“A lot of people with a condition like mine are afraid of sport,” she said and you immediately thought of how all of Ireland’s 48-strong team are similarly unafraid to throw themselves into theirs, and what rewards they have reaped for that dedication and courage.
The Paralympics would not be elite sport if medals were not involved. Ireland’s haul of 11 in Rio surpassed expectations and will rightly earn special kudos for Jason Smyth, Michael McKillop, Eoghan Clifford, Colin Lynch, Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal, Ellen Keane and Cork’s ‘Rebel treble’ of discus medallists Orla Barry, Niamh McCarthy and Noelle Lenihan.
They all proved that Ireland can compete with, and beat, the best in the world in Paralympic sport.
But, like Olympians, just to qualify and compete at this level, gives every Paralympian on Team Ireland 2016 a special status that will be theirs forever and, hopefully, motivate them to continue to strive higher.
Are the Paralympic Games perfect? No, just like their imperfect Olympic cousins.
Questions about classification will continue to create debate, especially in the pool and on the track. You could also argue that siting the Olympics and Paralympics in a city that contains such extreme poverty was a poor venue choice and Rio, tragically, will also be remembered for the first death of a competing Paralympian, Iranian cyclist Bahman Golbarnezhad. Yet despite all the naysayers, over 2 million tickets were sold and the Cariocas, mainly, crowded into venues, especially at weekends, with an energy and appreciation that was heart-warming.
The locals showed that there is an audience for Paralympic sport if it is showcased and marketed properly and, one hopes, will put pressure on their future political leaders to provide disabled Brazilians with better access and opportunities in life and sport.
Among those showcasing Paralympic sport in Rio was a group of young multi-media journalists working under the ‘Paralympics Zeitung’ banner for a German media company.
David Hock was one of their junior reporters and I didn’t notice, at first, that he had no arms. When I did, I automatically presumed he was a broadcaster who delivered his work with his voice.
But, on the penultimate night, I looked across at him in the main media centre and saw that his keyboard was on the floor under his desk and he was typing, at great speed, with his toes.
Another little kite who caught my eye, challenged my prejudice and totally changed my perception of what is possible in life and sport.
That is the great gift that the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games gave us all.
by Cliona Foley