Paralympics: Rio 2016 Is Here!

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The Olympics may be behind us, but the carnival of elite sport is far from over. Today (September 7th), the Paralympic games in Rio begin. GeekMom Judy has already written about why the Paralympics are great to watch with our kids, and I thought I’d share what I’m looking forward to. This time four years ago, I had only a slight awareness of the variety and brilliance of Paralympic sport, but with the 2012 games being in London, all that was about to change.

Britain in 2012 was a magical place to be. After months of being grumbling skeptics, the nation united over our love of sport. In the initial ballot, a year earlier, getting tickets for the Paralympics had been comparatively straightforward, but as the nation was gripped by Olympic fever, trying to snap up extra seats became harder and harder. I managed to snaffle some wheelchair tennis tickets, in addition to the two sessions in the Olympic Stadium that I already had. The rest of the games I would have to enjoy from the comfort of my armchair.

2012 truly was a special time for the Brooks family. My youngest was born in June 2012, and he will forever be our Olympic baby. My wife was off on maternity leave the whole summer, so we could all enjoy watching the games together. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Paralympic television coverage in the UK, by Channel 4, was exemplary.

Through their careful guidance, I came to understand the many facets of Paralympic classification. They used a traffic light code system called LEXI, invented by a former Paralympian, Giles Long, to explain the nature of athletes’ impairment, and how competitors that appeared to have very different impairments were actually competing on a level playing field.

 

Unbelievably, four years have passed. My youngest is now on the verge of starting school, but before he does, we’ll get to enjoy another selection of Paralympic sport. Here, based on my experiences of 2012, are some of the things I’ll be looking forward to.

Wheelchair Tennis/Rugby/Basketball

Weelchair rugby was immortalized in the film Murderball, and it’s about as brutal as sport gets. Wheelchair basketball has an appeal, which standard basketball just doesn’t hold for me (it’s a Brit thing!), and as for the wheelchair tennis, it has to be seen to be believed. I was lucky enough to watch these athletes close up in London, and they’re incredible to behold. The speeds at which they hit the ball and cover the court make each rally breathtaking.

Paralympics GB

London 2012 was hugely successful for Team GB, both at the Olympics and the Paralympics. Our Olympic athletes have just returned from our most successful games ever, and I can’t wait to see if Paralympics GB can do the same. Britain is at the forefront of Paralympic sport and I am confident they will deliver. Old heroes return to defend their titles, and no doubt, new champions will be forged in the crucible of Rio 2016.

Track and Field

I love track and field. I already have my tickets for next year’s World Athletics and Parathletics championships, when once again world class sport will return to the East End of London. With so many different categories for competition at the Paralympics, there’s just so much athletics to watch. In London, I watched GB take gold in discus, live in the Olympic Stadium; was an unforgettable experience.

Unlike their unimpaired counterparts, the wheelchair racers can compete across a great many distances. This really ramps up the rivalry. With the same athletes battling it out over 800m, 1500m, 5000m, and even the marathon, it’s a contest unparalleled in the Olympics. Imagine Usain Bolt running against Mo Farah.

There was huge rivalry on the sprint blades in 2012. These were Blue Riband events in London. For a while, in the UK, a prosthetic blade was an item an envy. Britain’s Jonnie Peacock and Brazilian Alan Oliveira will compete in the men’s T43. These two produced one of the hottest races in 2012, along with notable absentee, Oscar Pistorius. I hope the Rio games can successfully step out of his shadow.

paralympic sprint
Paralympic Wheelchair racing in London 2012. Taken from a long way away, on a bad phone camera, and manipulated in Instagram by somebody who didn’t know what they were doing. Photo: Robin Brooks

Swimming

Endeavor in the pool is thrilling to watch too. The have relay races, that I think are the most exciting sporting event I have ever seen. There are freestyle and medley relays, for both men and women. The key to the event is the phrase “34 Points” that comes after the name. The full race title is  “4 X 100m Relay (34 Points).” The points refer to the Paralympic classification that is explained in the LEXI video above. Paralympic classification runs from 1-10, with 1 being the most impaired, and 10 the least.

In these relay races, the total points of impairment must total 34, across all 4 athletes. So where one team might choose to have two nines, and two eights, another might have two tens and two sevens. The order in which competitors race is up to the each team. One team might front-load, and come into the final leg far far ahead, whilst another team might hold their least impaired athlete until last. This athlete will then make up huge amounts of ground, as the points stagger unwinds. The hell-for-leather chase in the final twenty meters is as exhilarating as anything in sport.

If you want to catch this amazing race, there are relays on September 14th, 15th, 16th, and 17th.

Five-a-Side Football (Soccer)

One sport I knew nothing about before London 2012 was Five-a-Side football. Well, that isn’t true, I played 5-a-side at least twice a week for about 20 years. But I was fortunate enough not to have to do so whilst visually impaired.

Watching Paralympic 5-a-Side is a surreal experience, particularly when compared to the football terraces on a Saturday afternoon. Instead of continual chanting from the crowd, games are played with total spectator silence. The ball has a bell in it, and the players must be able to hear it in order to play. All levels of visual impairment can play, as everybody is blindfolded to ensure fairness. The goalkeeper is not visually impaired and is allowed to call out instructions to his teammates. This version of the sport is particularly accessible to soccer newcomers, as there is no offside rule.

The Last Leg

This is not a sport. It’s a TV show that takes a lighter look at the Paralympics. It was the revelation of Channel 4’s 2012 coverage, and has run regularly, as a topical news show ever since.  It returned in full for the Paralympic Winter games in 2014, and is back for the Rio games.

I’m not sure how easy it is to watch the program outside of the UK, but if you can, I thoroughly recommend that you do. Presented by Australian comedian Adam Hills, and ably assisted by Brits Josh Widdicombe and Alex Brooker, the program not only looks at the athletic endeavor of the games, but also discusses social attitudes towards disability and accessibility. Hills and Brooker both have disabilities, and they bring their personal experiences to the show. It’s very funny and has done wonders for changing attitudes towards disability here in the UK.

If you can’t watch The Last Leg, do look out for its Twitter hashtag #isitok. This is used for people to ask things they’ve always wondered about disability sport, or life in general, for people who live with the challenges of disability. The team use it brilliantly to skewer social attitudes and bring understanding to a wider audience. At the moment they’re encouraging British Paralympians to post their #isitok videos. The show can be followed @thelastleg.

So there we have it, just a few of the choicest cuts from the feast of sport coming our way over the next 11 days. New sports have been added, triathlon and canoeing, and there are a lot more events including cycling, archery, table tennis, equestrian, boccia, and goalball. There really is something for everybody. Let the games begin!

Paralympic Agitos
The Paralympic Agitos attached to underside of Tower Bridge in 2012. Photo: Robin Brooks

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