Tough questions greatly preferred to easy laughs

You may have heard by now about Frankie Boyle’s tweets during the Paralympic Games opening ceremony on Wednesday night and, in particular, his crack about how the Saudi Arabian team consists mostly of thieves.

Chances are you caught some of the fallout, too. The Scottish comedian has long harboured a reputation for a brand of humour that makes people wince and chuckle in equal doses but his offerings haven’t exactly been isolated this last few weeks. They’ve just been better constructed.

To tell people that you would be covering the Paralympics this summer was to invite a host of predictable ‘gags’ that, like Boyle’s, elicited considerable discomfort and the most hollow of where-do-I-look har hars. Good people telling bad jokes.

Boyle’s attempt at ribaldry was at least deliberate. His supporters would probably claim that his methods are a Pussy Riot-type protest aimed at the Church of Political Correctness and it must be said that there is an awful lot of verbal tip-toeing going on here right now.

The vast majority of people are just being genuinely mindful of sensibilities and the fear of using one inadvisable word or phrase is a constant for anyone with limited experience of Paralympic events who is covering these Games — all of us, in other words.

Cathal MacCoille managed to mix the Paralympics up with the Special Olympics on Morning Ireland last week while former British health minister Edwina Currie caused a firestorm with her dumb remarks that the Italians were “gorgeous, even in wheelchairs”.

Even the athletes have erred. Britain’s para-cycling world champion Jon-Allan Butterworth let fly with a verbal grenade earlier this week when he said that too many of his Team GB athletics counterparts were “just having a laugh” and not serious athletes.

This is a subject you will hear often at these Games where there is a constant jarring of the tectonic plates that support those in the movement who fly the elite sport flag and those who favour the all-inclusive banner.

Even still, Butterworth’s subsequent climbdown was as speedy as his performances on the track but the fact is that Paralympic sports are at times as divisive and splintered as any and some things do have to be said even though they may ruffle some feathers.

The very name of the movement is a nod to a cherished parallel status with it’s bigger and older Olympic cousin and that doesn’t just mean glory, guts and determination — it sometimes means skullduggery and dark clouds too.

The most famous controversy in Paralympic history broke 12 years ago when Spain was stripped of its intellectual disability gold medal in basketball after an undercover journalist revealed that 10 of their 12 players were not, in fact, disabled at all.

Doping has raised it’s ugly head, too. Those same Sydney Games saw 14 athletes return positive tests, most of them in powerlifting.

In the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games, German cross country skier Thomas Oelsner lost two golds after a positive test.

Some spinal injury athletes have even gone so far as to inflict pain on themselves by a process called ‘boosting’. The medical term is autonomic dysreflexia and the effect is an increase in heart rate which increases the flow of oxygen to the muscles.

The mind boggles that people who have suffered major physical traumas could manipulate their bodies in such a way but then those who insisted that Lance Armstrong’s journey from cancer sufferer to multiple Tour de France winner wasn’t all it seemed would no doubt nod sagely.

It isn’t just the illegalities that demand discussion.

There are 164 nations competing in London now, whereas over 200 took part in the Olympics, and too many of those flags carried in Wednesday’s ceremony were trailed by just a handful of athletes, if any at all.

Clearly, the event still has some way to go before it is truly global.

None of this is to be negative for the sake of it. It is easy to be trite and patronising about these Games and the competitors but the fact is that it is impossible not to be awestruck whichever way one looks in the Olympic Stadium, the Velodrome or Copper Box.

In the second race at the Aquatic Centre yesterday, one Chinese swimmer, a double arm amputee, started her backstroke heat half-immersed in the pool, legs clamped against the wall and a towel that was held by a volunteer clenched between her teeth.

But the Paralympics can be as confusing as it is inspiring.

There are countless classifications and disabilities and some events require a factoring system where times are altered based on the level or type of disability of participating athletes.

What that means is that some people broke Paralympic and world records in their particular classes yesterday and yet failed to win gold medals. This is obviously something of a mind-bender for most of us so, by all means, ask what may first appear to be the hard or awkward questions.

Let’s just all avoid the easy laughs, eh?


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