This year I probably watched the Olympic Games less than I ever have before. What I did see struck me as rather clinical, and less emotional than I remember former games being. Many of the gold medal winners didn't seem to be quite as pleased as I thought they might be. I grew up with sporting superstars who were - in theory at least - amateurs. They were dedicated (possibly obsessed) people with a selfish streak a mile wide, but who achieved what they did largely through stubborn determination and a liberal dose of egotistical mania. When they won, they almost exploded with excitement and joy. it was still possible - just - as a kid, to identify with someone who did their training at the local school playing field, or the community gymnasium or swimming pool (even if they had to do so at 4 a.m in order to get the amount of time in the pool that they needed). It was possible to pretend to be those people as we played our games and had our school contests.
Now, the world of athletic sport, just like all the others, is a world of professional competitive machines. In my own favourite sport, for example, a glimpse through the footage of international matches will illustrate the evolution of rugby players from mostly ordinary but large, very tough fellows into enormous, muscle-bound athletes apparently made from Kryptonite. The game has evolved into a much faster, much more impressive sport at the first class level. It's very entertaining to watch, but the people who play the game are no longer the typical sportsman or woman. They too, have become sporting machines, honed for action. I can no longer fantasize about playing alongside such people (it was my pleasure to be humbled on a couple of occasions by playing on the same pitch as international players, and seeing with my own eyes how much of a different league they were in) - I couldn't even get on the pitch as a mascot.
The Paralympics, however, is different. There, I see people who are still, at heart, ordinary. I might pass them on the street and not know of their achievements. Determination, courage and toughness are usually invisible qualities, after all. I can watch such people and think, even now as my beard grows ever more white, that I might have been one of them. It's the attitude to life that is so impressive, the determination to achieve a goal, the grit: these are the qualities that I have always admired in athletes. In relation to such hugely impressive humans, a physical disability is largely irrelevant. In fact, I get much more excited watching a Paralympic victory than I do an Olympic one. Somehow, it's more real. The delight is palpable.
I mean this in the least patronizing sense: Paralympic athletes seem so much more normal, more human than the superbly honed athletic machines which populate the Olympics and every other professional sport these days. They are people with whom I can identify - and the realization of that is surprising, because I am fortunate to have been 'able-bodied' until now. Tomorrow, after all, I may lose that good fortune and become disabled - but I will never, ever become a sporting machine. If I was to meet with the former circumstance, I will have role models to think about; people who demonstrate what is possible in spite of the challenges that life throws in our path. Today, the Paralympics reminds me that people can still be magnificent. It tells me that greatness is all around me, and that much of it is invisible. Most of all, the Paralympics is a lesson to me that those of us who have realized that the nettle is there to be grasped and experienced are the ones who truly live.