Alan Hubbard: The litmus test for disability sport is whether such unprecedented acclaim can be sustained
Thursday, 13 September 2012
Now, through the heady haze of the most pleasurable of hangovers we contemplate the words of the Prime Minister David Cameron: "Twenty twelve will be like 1966, something we, our kids and grandkids will talk about for years to come."
Unquestionably prophetic – or wishful thinking? Only time will tell but I hope he is right, particularly about the Paralympics.
Before we get carried away on that euphoric magic carpet ride, we have to ask whether globally they made anything remotely like the impact they did here.
Television coverage overseas was way off the scale of Channel 4's daily output.
Only highlights were shown in the United States and, unlike the Olympics, little at all in many countries in Africa and Asia, even some in Europe.
This is not to put a downer on the glorious emancipation of the Paralympics. One can never do that.
Simply a reminder that sustainability is dependent on a fickle media both here and abroad.
Even the normally imperturbable Lord Coe got rather shirty last weekend when he complained that on Saturday's back pages – both tabloids and broadsheets – reverted to type when England's roll-over of Moldova in the football World Cup qualifier shoved the Paralympics off the back pages. And by and large, the Sundays decided that the semi-final endeavours of Andy Murray at Flushing Meadows were worthier than those of Oscar Pistorius and co in the Olympic Stadium.
In this spot a few weeks ago, I asked with the footy season starting, how soon it would be before a Wayne Rooney groin strain kicked the Paralympics into touch in the tabs. Not long as it happened – although it was his gashed leg that got the headlines.
Our history shows that the public can be as notoriously fickle as the media, although it was heartening to note that ITV's coverage of the match in Moldova on Friday night drew two and a half million fewer viewers (3.9 million) than Channel 4's corresponding Paralympics' transmission (6.4 million).
Even so, as the Paralympics celebrated their golden finale one question burned with the intensity of the flame that had lit up our lives those past 12 days. How long will our newfound passion for sport for the less able linger? Or is it destined to fade like the flame itself?
Paralympians have fought long and hard for their showpiece to be recognised on merit as a sports event and not as a worthy adjunct to its able-bodied brother and this has been remarkably achieved.
Prosthetic legs have been firmly stuck through glass ceilings.
London 2012 provided a wonderful platform on which to demonstrate to the world that the Paralympics really have come home. But will it be to stay? And do we finally accept that it is truly as a sport and not just a novelty, a fascinating a freak show?
Again, only time will tell.
London's Paralympics were indeed a unique celebration of genuine athletic achievement, albeit founded on stories that persistently tugged at the heartstrings, brought tears to the eyes and lumps in throats – when actually all the competitors themselves wanted were the encouraging cheers from those who watched them. And those came in abundance as the Paralympics unravelled to reveal performances and personalities equal of the Games that had preceded them, hopefully to remain etched indelibly in the memory.
My hope is that the crowds that flocked to the Olympic Park or packed the outlying Games venues to watch Brits contest such arcane pursuits as boccia, wheelchair fencing and sitting volleyball weren't doing so out of voyeurism or simple curiosity – or because being there suddenly became the vogue on the coat tails of an arguably unmatchable Olympics.
But that they turned out in droves because they were there for the sport, not just for the theatre and that some of them will have been sufficiently captivated to go along to cheer the kids at the Junior Amputee Games at Stoke Mandeville this weekend.
So what next for those who have given the Paralympics the parity they craved? The real litmus test for the future of sport for the disabled is not 2012 but whether such unprecedented acclaim can be sustained or has it all been just a passing fancy?
Will the media coverage and spectator appeal be anything like as huge for next year's world championships in Lyon (where taekwondo is pressing for inclusion) and then the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow?
These will have just five Parasports – swimming, athletics, lawn bowls, powerlifting and cycling compared to the 22 here. But they will be integrated with the able-bodied events as in the last three Games.
Track cycling will make its Commonwealth debut in Glasgow as one of the optional sports, providing medal opportunities for vision-impaired athletes who will compete alongside able-bodied team members in the new Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome.
In all, 22 fully integrated medal events will be offered across the Games and an equal number of medal opportunities will be offered for both male and female Parasport athletes.
Glasgow 2014 chief executive David Grevemberg told the insidethegames: "I am thrilled that following the finalisation of our sport programme we are able to offer more events and medal opportunities for Parasport athletes than any other Commonwealth Games in history.
"Our commitment to Parasport underlines its growth and popularity at all levels. After the huge success of London 2012, it will ensure that Commonwealth Parasport athletes can continue to perform on the big stage in front of thousands of spectators."
Up next will be the Paralympics in Rio two years later and our hope is that along the way we'll keep singing "There's Only One David Weir" and that his name, like those of Jonnie Peacock, Ellie Simmonds, Sarah Storey et al will still be as much on everyone's lips together, bracketed as they are now with Mo Farah, Jess Ennis, Bradley Wiggins and Nicola Adams.
London has set the bar and, as with the Olympics, may well prove an impossibly hard act for Rio to follow. As Peacock says: "If Rio is half as good it will be amazing."
In some ways, it does seem a shame that the world's two biggest sporting events have to be treated separately. I am not suggesting that, as with the Commonwealth Games, the Paralympics should be interwoven with the Olympics. Clearly, that is not practical. But did they really have to extinguish the Olympic Flame on August 12, only for it to be relit 17 days later? At least keeping the flame alive would have made it seem more like a Games of two halves rather than two totally separate entities.
Because, while what has so entranced us these past few weeks in both the Olympics and Paralympics may have had extraordinarily different elements, there was only ever one common denominator. It is called sport.
Today, we are all feeling better for this uplifting realisation.
Long may it last.
Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Olympics, 10 Commonwealth Games, several football World Cups and world title fights from Atlanta to Zaire.