For too long people who were physically disabled were hidden away, either for their own protection, or in some instances because they were seen as an embarrassment to their families.
This was grossly wrong and exhibited a flaw in the mentality of those family members.
The Paralympic Games, which began with the opening ceremony in London last night, are the best evidence of a change in attitude as such people are now being celebrated rather than hidden. The Games, which strive for equal treatment with able-bodied athletes, have grown from a small gathering of British veterans of the Second World War in 1948 to what is now one of the biggest sporting events in the world, with 2.5m tickets to various events already having been sold.
The first such gathering in London in 1948 was called the “Wheelchair Games”. Since 1976, athletes with different disabilities have been admitted. Now there are six broad categories of competitors — amputee, cerebral palsy, intellectual disability, wheelchair, visibly impaired, and “les autres”, those others whose disability does not fit the other five categories, such as dwarfism, multiple sclerosis and congenital disorders.
The Games provide dramatic evidence of how people can overcome their physical impairments, and this provides enormous encouragement not only to others suffering from disabilities but also to those without such impairments.
The German-born Georg Eyser competed for the US in gymnastics at the Olympic Games at St Louis in 1904. Even though he had lost a leg as a result of a train accident, he won three gold medals, two silvers and a bronze.
Karoly Takacs, from Hungary, who lost his right-hand as a result of a training accident with a grenade in 1938 — thought himself to shoot with his left hand, and won the gold medal in rapid pistol shooting at the 1948 Olympic Games, and retained the title four years later at Helsinki.
The International Association of Athletics Federations ruled in 2008 that double amputee Oscar Pistorius — South Africa’s famous “blade runner” — had an unfair advantage because his carbon fibre prosthesis legs were so light. Fortunately, the Court of Arbitration for Sport had the good sense to reverse that ruling, but the runner missed out on the Beijing Olympics shortly afterwards, because he did not reach the qualifying time. Nevertheless he went on to win three gold medals at the Paralympics that followed.
Earlier this month he became the first double amputee to compete in a track event at the London Olympics, having qualified to compete by achieving the Olympic standard. This epitomised the true Olympic spirit, which puts the emphasis on competing rather than winning.
The 49 Irish athletes competing across 10 sports in London are all winners, because they have overcome such odds to get there. We salute them and their fellow competitors.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved