DisABILITY in 2012 – A Paralympic homecoming

On Wednesday 29th August 2012, the 14th edition of the Summer Paralympic Games got underway with an opening ceremony at the Olympic Stadium in London, Great Britain and by doing so, came back to their spiritual home for the first time.

Not since the time of Sir Ludwig Guttmann, a German-born neurologist that gave hope to those with spinal injuries of a good life at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Stoke Mandeville, Great Britain, has the flagship event of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) returned to its founding nation, but it finally did in 2012.

He opened up opportunities to injured servicemen and women of a healthy and happy lifestyle as he opened up a National Spinal Injuries Centre at the hospital in February 1944 and from this, the Summer Paralympic Games were first held in Rome, Italy in 1960.

Esther Vergeer winning a gold medal at Eton Manor was one of the highlights of the 2012 Summer Paralympic Games.

Esther Vergeer winning a gold medal at Eton Manor was one of the highlights of the 2012 Summer Paralympic Games.

His will to make sure that disabled men and women could forge a career in sport was a strong one, and it gave birth to an international multi-sport competition which finally returned to British shores after a 52-year wait.

From his beginnings, the games didn’t only come home but in a nation that so proudly held the 2012 Summer Olympic Games a month earlier, they evolved into a feast of sport that not only its host, but also the world, couldn’t get enough of.

London 2012 has changed the way that the Paralympics are perceived around the world, and it has given disabled athletes a chance to stand on the same platform as those who are able-bodied.

I had a chance to visit the Olympic Park, or should I say Paralympic Park, during the Games and I felt honoured to watch global stars achieve success.

Consumed in a bubble of sporting venues and stars, Esther Vergeer excelled in wheelchair tennis, Ellie Simmonds made waves in the swimming pool and Oscar Pistorius tore up the athletics track and by doing so, they all proved that it can be cool to be disabled.

The sport wasn’t the only chance to get involved with the Paralympics though, as performers and announcers also had a chance to shine in the opening and closing ceremonies at the Olympic Stadium, the showpiece venue within London’s Olympic and Paralympic site.

Nicola Miles-Wildin, a British performer who lives with juvenile chronic arthritis while acting on stage and radio and Trish Bertram, a British announcer who has worked for television companies such as London Weekend Television, Channel 5 and BBC World while announcing at the opening and closing ceremonies of the 15th Asian Games in Doha, Qatar in December 2006, were chosen to display their talents in front of a global television audience of 3.8 billion people.

Acknowledged by Alexis Schaefer, the IPC’s commercial and marketing director as a “significant achievement”, the Paralympic Games were watched by a stronger audience in 2012 than at any other time and as a result, he believes that “we (the IPC) potentially will see more broadcasters in the Americas either showing the Games live or delayed” as Rio de Janeiro, Brazil hosts them in 2016.

Schaefer’s words show that London’s Paralympics were the most successful yet, and both Miles-Wildin and Bertram could not have been prouder of being a part of them.

On playing Miranda in an opening ceremony which took viewers on a journey that celebrated the life of William Shakespeare, Miles-Wildin expressed her joy by saying: “Performing at the Paralympic Games meant a great deal to me.

“It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A chance for Great Britain to show the world what talented disabled people we have in the arts. We are a culturally diverse country which we celebrate.”

I visited the Aquatics Centre in the Olympic Park, amongst other venues.

I visited the Aquatics Centre in the Olympic Park, amongst other venues.

Feeling surprised as she was chosen to be included in the opening ceremony, Miles-Wildin went on to describe her feelings as she acted alongside Sir Ian McKellen and also, her thoughts on London’s hosting of the Paralympics as it broke down barriers that disabled people face in day-to-day life.

She said: “I did not know that Sir Ian was in the ceremony until two weeks before we performed. The directors casually threw his name into the conversation and I was like, WOW!

“Acting alongside Sir Ian was a dream come true. Something as an actress I have always thought about but never thought it would happen. Particularly as disabled people tend not to get cast in mainstream theatre or film as they should do, so it was an absolute joy.

“I would like to think that the Paralympics has made disability be viewed in a more positive way, but also that people do realise that we are not all athletes. Also, the opening and closing ceremonies showed what talent there is out there and we should be given equal representation and opportunities.

“It has certainly provided a higher number of role models for younger disabled people but they have to be shown continually, not just every four years for the Paralympics.”

Echoing Miles-Wildin’s praises, Bertram was also proud of announcing at not only the opening and closing ceremonies of the Paralympic Games in London, but also the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games too.

Delighted at having the opportunity, she said: “I was passionate about the Games being hosted in my home city and was determined to enjoy London 2012 to the max!

“To then be asked to work on the Olympic closing and both Paralympic ceremonies was a dream come true.

“I was particularly excited about the Paralympic Games in general as Channel 4 was going to cover them. Their reputation for diversity made them the perfect broadcaster.”

In regard to announcing in the Olympic Stadium, I asked her if the jobs were the toughest that she has faced.

She said in reply: “Oh yes! But I was very aware that it was an enormous responsibility.

“Whenever I felt the nerves fluttering, I just reminded myself that it wasn’t about me. It was about the Olympians and Paralympians, the Games, the spectators, the viewers at home and everyone who had worked so hard to make the Games a success.

“I can honestly say that working on the ceremonies was the most exciting time of my entire career.

The Olympic Stadium was the jewel in the crown of London 2012.

The Olympic Stadium was the jewel in the crown of London 2012.

“I was privileged to work alongside some amazingly talented people, not least my fellow announcer Marc Edwards, and I am proud and humbled to have played a small part in such an amazing summer.”

Considering a legacy that the IPC can take to the next edition of the Summer Paralympics, Bertram feels that Great Britain and the sporting world took the Games to heart and that if the same spirit can be felt in Brazil, there could be a positive future ahead.

Thinking back and into the future, she said: “The Paralympic events easily equalled the Olympics in terms of achievement and excitement.

“I am pleased that London 2012 showcased them so well and they have been hailed the most successful Paralympics ever.

“I truly hope that broadcasters in other countries will give the same amount of prominence to future Paralympic Games as Channel 4 did. I think that the success of London 2012 has showed that there is an equal demand for TV coverage by viewers as there is for the Olympics.”

Together, Miles-Wildin and Bertram have showed that there was excitement around being part of London 2012 and by taking the global viewing figures into account, it seems that watching them was as enthralling an experience as actually being there.

It can only be hoped that Paralympians and others can continue to feel a rise in support as future years go by, starting with Rio’s hosting in September 2016.

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