Olympic hangover means missed opportunity for Rio’s Paralympics

Let’s not pretend that this, for the most part, is somehow different.

On Monday, Michael Gallagher, Australia’s cycling gold medallist from the last two Paralympics, took to his Facebook page and ‘fessed up. Given what we know about doping, he at least deserves some credit for not compounding his cheating with a string of predictable lies and, still, all of this sounds so depressingly familiar. Suspended by the Australian authorities after failing a test in June, he came clean about his EPO use. “I had many ways of justifying this use for Para sport which in hindsight were merely just dark, paranoid, and selfish justifications to talk myself into it,” he wrote before saying he did it all alone.

However you can be sure he is not alone. Nowhere near it.

Earlier in the year, in an interview with the Irish Examiner, Ireland’s best chance of a gold medal in Rio de Janeiro, Jason Smyth, was asked about doping at the Paralympics. He said he found the notion unlikely because the monetary rewards aren’t like those at the Olympics. But this is hugely naive. Doping isn’t about money, it’s about winning, therefore athletes at all levels cheat the same way as a child will at a board game if his friend goes to get a glass of Coke, the same way a teenager will peek at the book during an exam if given half a chance.

To get ahead is human nature, meaning Gallagher is no different to many we will witness, and nor are these Paralympics different to other major sporting events. It’s why, for instance, the Russian team was booted out, something the International Paralympic Committee should be praised for, because cheating isn’t about being able-bodied or disabled.

Thus healthy questioning, and not just awe, are now needed.

Not long ago there was a theory that the worst indulgences were around classification cheating, best demonstrated by the Spanish wheelchair basketball team in 2000, but that’s the very tip. None of this is to take away from the many remarkable stories coming down the tracks, from 15-year-old Dutch swimmer Chantalle Zijderveld who, as world champion, hopes to become the first Paralympic medallist born this century, to Brazil’s Odair Santos in the 5,000m who four years ago collapsed on the last lap when leading, and after being helped by his guide back to his feet came in fourth. But it is about equality that each and every athlete here deserves and wants.

One major element the IPC wish to project is the idea of treating people the same. And in a back-handed way they are getting what they wanted as aside from scepticism, there are other trends of continuity running from last month into this. Take for example the level of interest among locals. Authorities say they hope to push on to two million ticket sales. So far 1.5m tickets have reportedly been sold but all of these people may not show. With more of these Games transferred to the Barra region way out of the city, those who’ve bought their entrance may not bother going. It’s meant that many arenas will only be open in part to condense the small interest into atmosphere.

And why should it be any different?

If Brazilians didn’t wish to pay prices that ate into their wages in August, why would they suddenly now? Pity? Guilt? That’s not what the Paralympics are about.

But there is another side to all of this which is more tragic than that and does set the coming days apart from the Olympics. This isn’t the calm before the storm, it’s the calm after the storm. The local authorities’ priorities and the International Olympic Committee’s greed meant that with a cash shortfall during the Olympics, money from this was used to prop that up. It’s resulted in fewer volunteers and venues, less transport, and a feeling of this not being the priority but a nuisance.

That’s an opportunity lost in a huge way because while the Olympics babble on about a legacy that never exists, the Paralympics had a genuine message and the potential of a very real legacy.

This isn’t merely about sport but about a realisation and a concerted effort to change. But being disabled here is far more challenging than in other parts of the world. The Paralympic movement tries to push for betterment away from their Games but look around the city and nothing has been altered. To be in a wheelchair means not being able to get down the crumbling and uneven paths. To be blind here means not being able to cross a road. To need care means locked up hospitals in a bankrupt place.

In fact last year Teresa Costa d’Amaral of IBDD, one of Brazil’s main disability organisations, was asked to rate Rio’s accessibility from one to 10. She replied zero.

A poll showed that 80% of disabled people in Brazil didn’t feel respected. Meanwhile of the millions of disabled people of working age, just 2% are in employment and just 7% have completed any form of higher education. The Paralympics won’t address that.

It doesn’t stop here though, as this is a good time to stare down ourselves too. We’ve spent the austerity years hammering people with disabilities in terms of cuts. We’ve gone after those that had nothing to give in that sense in numerous ways and done nothing to return a level of dignity now the party has supposedly started up again.

Indeed if you want to talk disability sport, how about the case of former Cork underage star Jamie Wall, who in 2014 was rushed to hospital with an epidural abscess on his spine, which rendered him paralysed from the waist down?

“Medical care is pretty poor to be honest,” he says. “The acute hospital in Beaumont had a hydrotherapy pool but don’t have the funding to operate it. The physios and people on the ground in the National Rehab Hospital are great but they’re playing with half a deck. The Government has been building a new hospital there for 10 years and there hasn’t been a block laid last I checked. I waited 10 weeks for a transfer from the acute hospital to the rehab centre — I was ready after three. They have a Lokomat walking device but don’t have enough full-time staff to get to it.” It goes on.

“The NRH hydrotherapy pool is only funded for half days work,” he adds. Patients can only get a maximum three sessions a week there, in our national rehab hospital! In terms of physio, you get two sessions weekly after discharge for just a limited period of time. My medical card took months to get sorted, bureaucracy at its most beautiful. And the worst one for me, waiting for ‘approval’ for items which are 100% necessary, such as standing frames to enable you to stand during the day — important for bone density, blood circulation, spasm, and tone management.”

That’s a story that could be repeated over and over, and is important when watching the Paralympics as we are looking at those who achieve in spite of our efforts, not because of them. And from athletes to coaches to administrators to hospital staff, they all suffer to varying degrees. These Games should highlight that but outside of even Brazil will anyone take a look in the mirror? All of that will make the idea of cheering over the coming weeks a little self-serving as it raises the question of what are those applause for?

Us to feel better about our society?

Disability deserves better than that. In many ways the Paralympics deserve better than what they are getting. But still we prefer to pretend.


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