At Paralympics, Focus is on Elite Competition

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Lisa Mullins: Now when it comes to actually choosing candidates for president and vice president there is no drama in these tightly scripted political conventions. If it's drama you crave check out another big event that's going on this week, the Paralympics. The games for elite disabled athletes are being held in London in many of the same venues as last month's Olympic Games. And much of the competition is just as fierce and emotional: Reporter Fred Dove is covering the Paralympics for the BBC. He said the assignment was a natural for him.

Fred Dove: I am myself physically disabled. I'm a survivor of the drug Phalidamide so they thought this would be a good opportunity for me to kind of roam amongst the crowd talk to some of the athletes and have some kind of sense of common experience.

Mullins: And we should say you're also an athlete

Dove: I was once yes. I've, I've retired from playing cricket which I did for many years. I was captain of the unofficial England disabled cricket team for a while, but in the course of my life yes I've played an awful lot of football, squash, cricket.

Mullins: Frederick curious about the status of the Paralympics. The Olympic Games themselves, the Paralympics have a long history starting all the way back in 1948 right there in London. Have you seen the kind of range of events and the number of athletes involved grow and have you seen the profile of the Paralympics grow?

Dove: If you consider that when Dr Ludwig Goodwin at the spinal injuries division at Stoke Mandeville Hospital back in 1948 organized a competition in which sixteen people in wheelchairs took part. And you look at now, there are over four thousand athletes involved now. So they've grown enormously. Until about you know the 1970s the competitions were for people in wheelchairs, but since then they've expanded and now you've got people of almost all disabilities taking part. You've got people with Cerebral Paulsy you've got amputees you've got people with learning disabilities. So the range is enormous, the number of countries taking part has grown enormously too. There are now over one hundred and sixty countries represented, and you talk about a global village an event like this the size of it just means it gains the headlines and therefore the news filters out.

Mullins: As someone who is a close observer for the BBC I wonder if you see any difference in the way the media covers some of these Paralympics sports versus others. And what I'm thinking here is not just the profile of the athletes themselves but also what kind of disabilities they might have.

Dove: This is an interesting area because what makes the Paralympics special let's face it is that these are elite disabled athletes. Now the performances they deliver are phenomenal in some cases, in most cases in fact but their stories are interesting. So the media finds itself in a little bit of a dilemma. Do we just focus on the performance and ignore what is a very good human interest story or do we try to tie them together without ending up patronizing.

Mullins: You're having to deal with that yourself as you cover the games.

Dove: Yes and having participated in disabled sports myself, I know what disabled sports can be like. A kind of really rough kind of humor that you can get say in the athlete's village here. But the media I think generally has twigged that actually what their watching is hard nosed competitors. Yes they may have no legs they may have no arms, whatever it is. But ultimately for many of them the goal is to wipe their opponent's nose in the dust. They're here to win. They are as self obsessed in many cased as abled bodied athletes for the Olympics. What they have in addition to the Olympians is in many cases a difficult story to tell but in many cases as well as a difficulty they have overcome. What we don't want, and I slip into the wee you notice there, what we don't want is stories of triumph over adversity. We don't want the pat on the head and go ooh aren't you brave. Yesterday I was watching a game of football between players with Cerebral Palsy and similar conditions that's affecting the coordination and it was between Argentina and Holland. Now these are two good football nations. And what really sort of pleased me and surprised me was at one point an Argentinean player laid into one of the Dutch players. Laid him out flat tackled him, it was a dirty tackle put it that way, and the crowd booed the Argentinean player. Now I thought that was fascinating because what you had there was a crowd of maybe able bodied people booing a disabled man. But they were booing him because it was a dirty tackle plain and simple. They no longer saw the disability, they saw the player they saw the football land I think that's what you're getting at these Paralympics. The amount of coverage we're now getting means the focus of that is sport not disability.

Mullins: Is there anything though that makes even you uncomfortable where you can't really ignore the disability.

Dove: No it doesn't make me uncomfortable Lisa. You've just reminded me of when I, I think it was either the Paralympics in Sidney in 2000 or in Athens in 2004 and the first time I saw a swimmer with no arms. I was glued to the TV screen. I saw how the swimmer went up and down at ridiculous speeds and instead of touching with his hands at the end he just smacked into the wall with his head. At these Para Olympics I've seen things that again make me just go I don't know speechless. A one legged high jump competition where the winner jumped one meter seventy four. That's the height of an average man on one leg. Or you watch the dressage, the equestrian competition where you've got say a rider with Cerebral Palsy so not able to control some of their own movements but they can control these big horses with almost perfection. And yes I may be disabled but I too know that oh my that is well I won't use the word brave and courageous that's not, it's just jolly impressive. It's an understatement I'm afraid. I want to say something perhaps a little stronger but I mean even we all react as human beings and we are fascinated by how other people cope. Whether you're disabled or not you are curious but then you see a man with one leg jumping one meter seventy four. That's just you know that's just incredible.

Mullins: Fred Dove thank you very much.

Dove: Thank you.

Mullins: Fred Dove is covering the Paralympics in London for the BBC.