Anderson: Games a fair stage for para-sports

IAN ANDERSON IN GLASGOW
Last updated 08:20 31/07/2014
Sophie Pascoe
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TOP ATHLETE: New Zealand swimmer Sophie Pascoe won two gold at Glasgow.

Sophie Pascoe
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TEARY EYED: Sophie Pascoe with her gold medal.

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OPINION: Opining on para-sport is akin to juggling a live hand grenade.

A few people may be impressed with your craft, some may marvel at your brass, plenty will ridicule your intelligence and most will expect it to end badly.

Ah well, bombs away.

The 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow hosted 22 para-sport medal events, in cycling, swimming, athletics, powerlifting and lawn bowls - more than at any other Games.

In putting more para-athletes on the same stage as their able-bodied counterparts, the inevitable comparison of worthiness of achievement springs up.

Should such a comparison be applied? According to para-swimming champion and journalist Cameron Leslie, yes.

Leslie sparked headlines last year when he wrote that the Disabled Sportsperson of the Year award at the Halbergs was "no more than a token gesture".

The former Paralympic swimming star said some disabled athletes referred to the category - won by Sophie Pascoe each year since its inception in 2011 - as "the Token Gimp Award".

He questioned whether the awards were being politically correct, or merely guilty of lazy judging, and wanted para-athletes to be graded with the able-bodied achievers.

But a survey by the Halberg Disability Sport Foundation of elite disabled athletes found 71 per cent wanted to retain the award.

Maybe the "wisdom of crowds" theory carries weight here - especially from those with first-hand experience of competition.

In a timely tweet, English triple-Paralympic champion Stephen Miller wrote during the Games: "For me integration isn't the way forward for disability sport as a whole, but it's great experience and exposure for the athletes involved."

What casts para-events into a fog of ambiguity is the vast disparities of ability - or rather, physical disability - of the competitors.

In the women's 100m freestyle S8 swimming event that featured Kiwi Nikita Howarth in Glasgow, the differences were clearly visible.

Gold medal winner Maddison Elliott, who has cerebral palsy that affects the right side of her body, won the gold in 1:05.32 - a new world record for the event and less than 15 seconds slower than the able-bodied 100m winning time.

Remarkably, silver medalist Stephanie Slater of England was only less than half a second behind despite only being able to use one arm.

The 15-year-old Howarth, who finished in 1:19.36 and moved up a category to compete at Glasgow, was born with bilateral upper limb deficiency, which means both her arms end at her elbow.

Ann Wacuka of Kenya was wheeled to the starting blocks - her profile lists her type of impairment as "limb deficiency", which is like saying Cantabrians aren't that enamoured with Gerry Brownlee, as her legs ended at her knees.

Wacuka was almost a full length of the pool behind the rest, touching home in 2:04.03 after a capacity stadium rose to cheer her for most of her second 50 metres. She got more adoration than Elliott.

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And while that ovation undeniably stemmed from pure hearts, it seemed inescapable that there was a patronising element in prolonged applause for someone almost literally out of her depth.

The para-cycling tandem got plenty of attention from the host country, as their gold-medal winning combination of visually-impaired Neil Fachie and 'pilot' Craig Maclean were among the stars of the track.

Tandem cyclists will rightly swear that the heavy bikes are hard to control and need perfect teamwork to produce results. Yet it's clearly a massive advantage to have a rider capable of blistering speed as the pilot.

The 42-year-old Maclean won Olympic team sprint silver in 2000, with Sir Chris Hoy as a team-mate, and team sprint Commonwealth gold six years later.

The Australian tandem teams use highly promising young riders as their pilots, and the rules of the sport mean the lead rider can be someone not far removed from elite able-bodied cycling.

So the use of the likes of Maclean lends heft to the idea that the employment of a powerhouse up front can play a far bigger hand than the para-athlete behind.

In some instances, judging para-sport performance isn't like the old chestnut of comparing apples with oranges; it's often akin to comparing socks to lightbulbs.

Pascoe won two gold from as many events in Glasgow. Had there been a full programme, she would have spent an hour passing through the airport scanner on her way home.

But should they carry the same weight on the medal table?

Her 100m breaststroke SB9 final had seven entries, and the bronze medalist was a 13-year-old, while her 200 IM SM10 gold came after seeing off four other rivals.

However, anytime you ponder the legitimacy of para-sport, the overwhelming tug of admiration drags you the other way.

Pascoe's tale of losing the lower half of her left leg in a ride-on mower accident when aged two is now well-known, and to witness the 21-year-old up close leaves you with no doubt she is a deeply gifted, fiercely-driven professional athlete like her able-bodied swim team members.

England's Slater was a promising able-bodied athlete with the dream of competing for Great Britain at the 2012 Olympics in London until nerve damage to her left arm affected her swimming.

"I was just training one day and I couldn't pull with my arm at all," she said.

Two years later, she'd been diagnosed with nerve damage to the lower part of her brachial plexus and can't use her left arm, while she also has dystonia, which results in muscle spasms and fatigue.

If ever an able-bodied athlete has watched the para-sport competitors and pondered 'there but for the grace of god', Slater is that figure.

Such athletes clearly deserve a spot on the big stage. But that elevation also means they will have to be well-braced against the critic's barbs.

- Stuff

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