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October 18, 2000

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Olympians at par

Rohit Brijnath

Heroism in sport has many faces.

Tiger Woods, Marion Jones, Luis Figo, Steven Redgrave, Pieter van den Hoogenband, Venus Williams ...

We know their faces, we appreciate their art, we are left slack-jawed by their vitality, we are hushed by their improbable deeds.

The will to win on a wheelchairBut heroism has other faces. Tim Mathews, John MacLlean,, Tony Volpentest ....

Their names draw a blank, their faces trigger no memory, their prowess remains unknown. You don't possess their autographs, or find the need to statistically compute their deeds, or paste their posters on your wall, or discuss them over a drink.

Maybe you never will. Maybe that's a shame.

Tim Mathews runs the 100m in 10.87 seconds, which is possibly quicker than the national record of some countries. Of course, he won't advertise the fact that he does it with an amputated arm and a 30cm rod in his back that keeps him upright.

Tony Volpentest runs the 100m in 11.36 sec and I'll bet my bottom dollar that you never went that fast ever, even when you were 17 and your headmaster was chasing you with a cane that dripped oil. Oh, and Volpentest was born without arms and legs.

John MacLean is a canoeist, completed the Ironman triathlon faster than you ever will, and now has announced his versatility by switching to track and field. That he happened to be hit once by a 8-tonne truck that resulted in an existence confined to a wheelchair is incidental.

There's only one problem with the 241 words I've written so far. Most of which isn't true. Oh, the Paralympian's exist, their deeds are real, but heroes? We might think they are, they don't.

For them heroic is not to run blind in a corridor of darkness, or play volleyball with a limb missing, or to throw a shot put despite cerebral palsy. As Brendan Burke, who carried the flag for Australia in the Opening Ceremony, told The Age, Melbourne, "Ignore the disability because we, as athletes, often donít even think we're disabled."

They don't want your pity, your empathy, your hand to hold. They want to be seen as athletes, recognised not for the stumps that are arms but for the speed that they run. They want to be viewed like everyone else.

But can they?

All athletes, whether Maurice Greene or Gary Hall Jr, must hurdle obstacles, grapple with despair, it is what makes them unique. All journeys are special, minute masterpieces in human endeavour. It makes it even harder then to ignore the Paralympian's journey, for his overcoming of adversity is even more stark.

He has trod on a mine like 10 of the 11 Cambodians come visiting, flown through a car's windscreen, had his legs sawn off without anaesthetic. In such situations of distress, suicide often comes visiting, but these men and women have rebuilt their lives, forged themselves through pain into competitors. What can we call it if not heroic. It remains a reasonable response. Baron de Coubertin's declaration, romantic if not possibly naÔve, that it is the taking part not the winning that is primary to the Olympics has a more powerful resonance here.

It is why able-bodied people are initially moved to treat them more gently, reserving criticism should they fail, awed that they have embraced challenges they themselves may have retreated from.

It can be an emotional stance that is counter-productive, specially in a world so conscious of the politically correct. When Tim Fischer, Mayor of the Paralympic Village, described the athletes as 'bravehearts', he was criticised in some quarters for being condescending and offering up platitudes.

Is Fischer a man genuinely moved by these athletes obstinacy in battling odds? Or is he just another ill-advised fool turning a legitimate athletic event into a bleeding-heart Games?

Fischer's motives may have been pure, but perhaps it is time we took another look at the Paralaympian. And let's do that by stepping past the obvious reactions, by shrugging off the predictable, trying not to make him cringe.

As the Games unravel let's judge these men and women by their skill, by the measure of their achievements, not by a mind adrift in sentimentality. If we do that, something remarkable may occur. The gawking will disappear.

And we will see them for what they are. Athletes all, chasing gold.

Suddenly they will be like everyone else. Suffering injury, running for repairs. Cheating. Taking drugs. Indulging in gamesmanship. Hands bleeding as they punch their wheelchairs to drive them on. Weeping when failure comes calling. Delirious when their hands touch the swimming wall first, four years of training finally worthwhile. Calling to their mothers. Wrapped in their flags.

And if we can get to that point where we can appreciate their dedication, acknowledge their improbable act of athletic genius, applaud their naked desire to win, and not just talk about the landmines any more, then we will finally be on even terms.

The athlete will have our respect. And we will finally have his.

Rohit Brijnath

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