Back when the Paralympics came to London in 2012, I was a keen amputee footballer – on the fringes of the England team, hoping we might be funded to play and train professionally (you can see me argue my case on BBC London below).
The first international match I’d played in, back in my early 20s, was against Sierra Leone. They’d been flown over to the UK by some charity or other, and were based at St Edwards in Oxford, a private school just down the road from the college where I was studying. I went to meet them, thinking I might try to write a piece for a newspaper.
I found the experience unsettling – the contrast of the leafy privilege of their temporary setting with the little I knew of their backstories: a terrible civil war, mutilations by machete. I felt far out of my depth, and didn’t want to pry further. I imagined these men were already having to share their stories with sponsors as part of the deal that paid for the tour, and they didn’t need some clueless student muscling in with a notepad and dictaphone.
Now I try to imagine amputee football at the Paralympics in 2021, had it been included, and I still have that sense of discomfort. The sport itself would be – and is – enormously compelling (have a look at England vs Turkey at the European final in Istanbul below).
But the way the games are broadcast seems to require athletes to offer up their personal stories as an integral part of the framing. Commentary on the regular Olympics is full of medical histories, of injuries triumphantly overcome. That’s perhaps the core narrative of sport: overcoming the odds.
Apply this to paralympians though, and it’s not sports injuries we’re being told about, but life-changing injuries – the ones that made these athletes disabled in the first place.
We’re being told What Happened To Them as though knowing is our right as viewers. And is it, in this context? Is that the deal? That we elevate disability sport, provided disabled competitors share their medical histories and their personal stories of overcoming the odds?
I wasn’t convinced those footballers from Sierra Leone should have had to take that deal, and I’m not convinced today’s paralympians should have to either.
Honest question: could we have the sport without the personal disability stories? Would there still be enough ‘overcoming’? Would people still watch?
(A version of this was first posted on Instagram on the 4th of September 2021.)
P.S If you’d like to see James kicking a ball a few years ago, this video by Kieran Brown is worth a watch. It had a few views back in 2015.
- A photo by Richard Cave for the Oxford Mail of James playing amputee football – he’s just kicked the ball directly at the camera and looks very intense. James is a one-legged white man, then in his 30s. He’s using black crutches. Our text reads: ‘”What happened to you?” disability & sport’ on a cream paper background.
- The same shot of James. Our text reads: Could we have the sport without the personal disability stories? Would there still be enough ‘overcoming’? Would people still watch?
- Video: a BBC London piece from 2012. James is speaking to camera at an Amputee Football practice. Players are playing on crutches behind him.
- Video: an excerpt of the Turkey vs England amputee football European championships in Istanbul in 2017. All players have one leg and play on crutches except for the goalies, who have one arm.]