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15 September 2012

The Parallel Olympics

Tag(s): Sport, People, Education

A few years ago I was asked to mentor a young man who had just finished his swimming career and was starting to carve out a new career as a motivational speaker. Giles Long certainly had a truly inspirational story to tell. At the age of seven he joined his local swimming club. He became aware of the achievements of the great Mark Spitz and started to dream of emulating him. But then at the age of thirteen a bully broke his arm and on treatment he was diagnosed with a bone tumour in his right humerus. He underwent a severe course of chemotherapy and a prosthesis was fitted into his upper arm. However, the cancer returned and there was talk of amputation. He decided to fight on even though the doctors advised he was at the limit. This time there was more chemotherapy, the prosthetic was removed and a ‘bio-stick’ inserted, a plastic tube coated in powerful penicillin to kill the infection. Then a much more complicated prosthetic was fitted effectively replacing both the shoulder and elbow joints in his right arm.

He was now 16 and also taking his GCSEs in which he did well. He got back in the pool- it was the year of the Barcelona Olympics – and a coach mentioned the Paralympics to him. Giles dismissed it at first, thinking that was for disabled people. But then he realised that he was now disabled and started to look into it seriously.  He was now only swimming with one arm and got thrashed swimming in competition with those who swam with two but in Paralympics disabilities are classified so that you can find your level and then compete ‘on a level playing field’ to use that metaphor in a slightly different way.

Swimming has ten levels of classification for functional disability and another three for the blind. S1 is for those with the most severe impairments and S10 for those with the least e.g. a missing hand or foot. An S9 swimmer would be someone with a forearm missing or leg amputated above the knee and an S8 is a competitor without an entire arm or a condition affecting both legs. Since Giles could not use his right arm he was classified S8. He was selected for the national team and started to break world records in 100m butterfly events while at the same time trying to qualify for his first choice university, Leeds.

At Atlanta  in 1996 he won bronze in the 200m individual medley, and then gold in his favoured race, the 100m butterfly in a Paralympic record time, even though a Danish swimmer had been reclassified just before the Games from S9 to S8. Giles was also in the silver medal relay team. At Sydney in 2000 the Dane edged him out to reverse the positions but at Athens in 2004 Giles broke the world record and again won the gold medal. He won another gold in the relay making three gold medals in all. He was subsequently awarded the MBE for his services to Paralympic sport.

He wrote an excellent book about his story, Changing to Win[i], in which he briefly describes how I taught him the classic Planning cycle, BOMMB, the acronym for Base- Objective -Method -Measurement -Base, itself derived from Peter Drucker’s Management by Objectives. But Giles found this too restrictive and came up with his own cycle, derived from his own career of ups and downs far higher and deeper than normal mortals experience. There are three points in his cycle, Change, Inspiration, Motivation which he shortened to CHIMO. I can’t help feeling this is also an echo of Chemo reflecting all the pain he has experienced both in treatment and then in training and competition.

I worked with Giles for a few months helping him with the marketing of the book, the planning of the motivational speaking, and then the actual speeches themselves. And he went on to develop a successful career as a motivational speaker and then as a commentator on disabled swimming.

My family did not try to get tickets for the Olympics but did buy tickets for the Olympic Park on the first day of the Paralympics. Sitting in front of the big screen I was delighted to see Giles giving his expert commentary as part of the Channel 4 team. He was the one who came up with the idea of LEXI to explain the classification process in Paralympic sport. This was a graphic device to explain in simple terms what can otherwise seem impenetrably complex.

Despite the excessive cost and the displacement of normal economic activity the Olympic Games was an undoubted success as a celebration of sporting achievement. But the Paralympics seemed to strike a different note in which the ideal of participation in sport was celebrated, not just the winning. The key enabler in the Paralympics is this principle of classification which allows athletes to compete against those with equivalent disabilities. Thus the blind compete with the blind, the amputees compete with the amputees, and those with cerebral palsy compete with other athletes who suffer the same. And so the focus is not on what they can’t do but on what they can. Their efforts and indeed their ingenuity go into making the most of their abilities within a narrow definition of impairment.  Giles describes in his book, and also explained on television, how rigorous the international classification process is to weed out cheats who exaggerate their disability.

Jeremy Hardy, regular on The News Quiz on Radio 4, was trying to tell a joke about the superiority of the Paralympics over the Olympics. He said the Wheel Chair Basketball was better than the normal one because in the able bodied version the tallest players always won and so you might just as well measure the heights before the match and hand out the medals accordingly, while in the wheel chairs they were all the same. But this just shows he did not understand what he had been watching. In Wheel Chair Basketball there is a points system which sets a maximum number of points for each team. This way each team must have some players of greater disability, and these are less able to reach out of their chairs. There are considerable differences in height and reach even if the chairs are all the same.

This point of classification is central to the success of the Paralympics allowing all competitors to take part and compete fairly. As a result there are many events over the same distance, more than 20 100 metre finals in athletics for instance. Everyone has his own favourite image of Paralympic sport from the past few weeks, a Chinese athlete throwing away his crutches, hoppling on his one good leg up to the high jump bar and hurling himself head first over a height of nearly 6 feet; blind sprinters running as fast as they can in the dark; a Chinese swimmer torpedoing himself through the water with just the stump of an arm; burly wheel chair rugby players hurtling into each other with greater ferocity than their able bodied counterparts.

If classification is the key to this success why do we reject it in society at large? Why do we force our children through a bottle neck of academic education that favours some cohorts over others? There are many kinds of intelligence, not just numeracy and verbal reasoning. Individuals are not only different in their abilities, they also learn in different ways. But we seek to proscribe the curriculum, the methods of teaching and so on. The UK is short of engineers; plumbers are imported from Poland; more and more get a university degree in something they like to do rather than something that society at large needs and will pay for. This is not of itself wrong, but it’s not the way that Britain excelled at the Parallel Olympics.

[i]Changing to Win Giles Long Piatkus 2008

Copyright David C Pearson 2012 All rights reserved


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