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Lessons From the Paralympics That Have Been Learnt and Can be Harnessed

The Paralympics have now been over for a bit over half a week. They were a top-class event put together by a masterful organising committee that also had responsibility for that other successful major event, the Olympic Games. Australia did so well. We put together the most successful touring performance of any Australian Paralympic team in history. That performance put us just two gold medals and a number of silver and bronze behind the strongly-funded hosts, Great Britain and just four golds and a handful of minor medals behind second placed Russian Federation.

But far from the phenomenal medal-winning performances and that of all the athletes across all nations involved, the London 2012 Paralympics have taught us some valuable lessons which can be harnessed to facilitate lasting change when it comes to the politics of disability.

Firstly, London put on an amazing show, on an unprecedented scale. These were the highest selling Paralympic Games ever. That mantle looks sure to be safe for quite some time too, perhaps never to be broken, ever. Nearly all of the two and a half million tickets allocated for the Games in London were sold, that makes a huge change to the usually relatively empty stands that our Paralympians tend to have to deal with every four years.

This says that London and Europe in particular “do” disability very well. It shows that people there view disability much more favourably than the much discriminated against and stigmatised disability community here in Australia. This could be a product of many things, but clearly disability and difference experiences a much greater degree of acceptance across Europe. That’s not to say things are great over there, disability has experienced cuts as the economic woes continue in that region.

A large contributing factor is probably how the welfare state is viewed in Europe as compared to Australia. There is less of a stigma to it in that region of the world. Those who rely on it are not discriminated against as much and are viewed as needing it and entitled to it, more so than Australians who tend to view welfare, even for those who cannot avoid it, with a level of disdain.

What the great spectator turnout at the Paralympics also shows is that disabled sport now appears, at least in Europe as just as elite and requiring just as much training, skill, ability and overall sporting prowess as the “able bods”.

But far from the lessons we can learn about Europe and how they view disability, we can also look at how they were viewed back here at home in Australia.

That story is almost as positive. As I wrote last week, the Paralympic Games from London consistently brought strong ratings for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s digital channel, ABC2, as well as the original channel, ABC1. That means Australians were more than willing to give the Paralympics a go and the relatively consistent ratings throughout proves that people continued to be enthralled by the exploits of our elite athletes.

It shows that, as I wrote last week, the Paralympic Games have the ability to transform how we view disability here in Australia, not just the sporting abilities of those with impairments, but also how disability is looked at within the broader community.

The efforts of our Paralympians must be harnessed by disability advocates in order to continue to foment change in such a neglected sector of the community. It shows that the efforts of supporters of those with a disability may well not be in vain, that there is a positive view of disability that is growing across Australia. That growth may be slow, but it is something that can be pushed along just that little bit faster by displays such as the Paralympics. Stigmas are hard to break, some would say impossible, but you certainly couldn’t say that after the last two weeks.

Australia and the world is learning and learning fast about disability. But that means absolutely nothing if the lessons that have been learnt over the last two weeks are not actually used to further the interests of people with a disability. It would be nice if Australia could aim to be more accepting of disability than the Brits showed. You could call it the ‘Ashes of Acceptance’, since we love beating the Poms so much at contests.

How About We Let the Sport do the Talking?

The London 2012 Paralympic Games are here, they’re finally here. The biggest ever Paralympic Games have returned to land of their spiritual birthplace, England. Over 4000 athletes have converged on the Paralympic Village, ready to compete across 21 sports, some everyday sports and some  adapted especially for athletes with a disability. This Paralympic Games has also seen the most number of tickets sold for the entire event, with 2.4 of 2.5 million tickets snapped up by sports mad people from the United Kingdom and around the world.

The television coverage domestically has also promised to be huge. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the perennial broadcast partner for the Paralympic Games again won the right to broadcast the event from start to finish. The ABC coverage of this year’s Paralympics has been much talked about. With the advent of digital television and the subsequent new channels allowing for greater coverage of this important sporting exhibition, more coverage, much more was promised.

Across two channels, the ABC have begun broadcasting a total of nine and a half hours daily from the Paralympic Games. This is a big shift from years previous when a highlights show and some radio commentary were the stock standard fare and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation should be congratulated for committing to such widespread coverage and the fact that the exposure of the Games is heading in the right direction, up.

Aside from the opening ceremony, which was brilliantly- read minimally narrated and impressively broadcast to the Australian people, the televising of the actual sporting prowess of our Paralympic athletes began right as the competition started.

That broadcast was headed in the studio by Stephanie Brantz, no stranger to sports commentary, as well as being co-hosted by comedian Lawrence Mooney, actor Adam Zwar and Sam Pang. Guests joined the hosts throughout four and a half hours of coverage on the ABC’s digital television channel.

A number of the finest voices of ABC Grandstand and ABC Radio  were stationed at the sporting venues across London, ready to bring the action to a curious Australian audience to a magnitude never seen before in this country.

If there was a failure of the coverage last night, it was that there was too much talk and not enough action. The stars of the Paralympics are supposed to be the athletes who’ve put in massive effort over the years and overcome more adversity than most people will ever encounter.

Instead, for much of the night, we were made familiar with the comedic exploits in particular of Lawrence Mooney and Adam Zwar, but also Sam Pang, who’ve been in the United Kingdom for some time already. The chat was interweaved with numerous introductions to the Australian team and some of its members individually, but that would ideally have taken place while there was little or no sport on, say between 6 and 7pm last night.

Oh and another thing. The only thing “live” about most of the coverage last night and yes the website says it was supposed to be live, is that the commentators were broadcasting live from London. Very little of the sport appeared live amid all the chin-wagging back in the studio. At one point the swimming heats went from one of the later heats in one event, directly to the second heat of presumably the next event. I’m sorry, but to me live coverage means footage of the actual competition is beamed to our televisions instantaneously,  not people sitting around in a studio talking about the sports we want to see as viewers.

As an indication of just how wrong they got it with the coverage last night, Twitter was abuzz with comments lamenting the lack of athletic action being displayed on televisions around Australia. One person even remarked to me that they were so disappointed they felt that switching off after a while was the only answer.

So here’s a radical thought: more sport and less talk. We know the c0-hosts are funny or at least try to be. But they’re not why we as viewers are tuning in. We want to see sporting genius, we want to share the joy of stellar efforts in the pool, on the road, the track and the other arenas. If we wanted a laugh we’d go to their gigs. To steal a line from Elvis and alter it just a bit, a little less conversation, a little more sporting action please.

There’s One Sporting Team to Come That Won’t Need a Performance Review Nor Extra Funding to Outstrip our Olympic Team

There’s just under three weeks to go until another massive sporting event begins in London. The 2012 Paralympic Games return to the spiritual birthplace of the Paralympic movement. Australia is traditionally very strong at the Paralympic Games compared to the Olympics, with medal tallies often outstripping that of our Olympians. Some will put that down to the extra events which are necessary to accommodate the varying levels of disability. Others, like me will say that has nothing to do with it, each respective athlete still has to be able to perform on the day.

One of the strongest sports at the Paralympics for Australia, if not the strongest, is traditionally the swimming, just like it is with that other competition they call the Olympics.

Unlike the Olympic counterparts, the Australian Paralympic Swimming team are unlikely to need a soul-searching performance review complete with navel-gazing to determine what went wrong with their campaign.

There’s likely to be a gold rush to rival Victoria in the 1800’s as I’ve written before. Our collective medal haul in the pool alone, if melted down, would likely save Spain and Greece from the ignominy of default. Okay, maybe I’m embellishing just a little bit, but nonetheless our performance in the pool alone at the Paralympics is a real possibility of eclipsing the overall gold medal tally of our Olympic team which currently stands at 5 golds.

And all that before factoring in the strong possibilities of gold medals in other sports for Australia at the London Paralympics.

Our athletics team which has not under-performed by any means in the past is likely to again bring home medals, some of them gold, but also silver and bronze.

With people like relatively well-known Paralympian Kurt Fearnley competing again in London we’re sure to make a strong showing. The three time gold medallist will line up for his third Paralympic Games in an attempt to win gold in the 800m, 1500m and the marathon which Kurt has made his own.

Other track and field athletes to look out for at the Paralympics include Kelly Cartwright who broke the long jump world record for her classification in 2011 and then earlier this year broke both the 100m and 200m world records in her class. Then there’s Evan O’Hanlon who broke his own world record this year in the 100m, Jessica Gallagher who’s competed in the Winter Paralympics before and medalled in the sport and up and comers some of whom will be in with a real shot of a medal.

Then you have the wheelchair basketball with the Australian men’s team, the Rollers the defending champions from Beijing who are sure to again push the USA, Canada and the home team Great Britain for another gold medal. Not to be outdone, the women’s team who received bronze at the Paralympic Games in China will also be a good chance of another medal.

Australia also has a great chance in the wheelchair rugby, popularly known as ‘murderball’ for the rough nature of the game. The Australian team, with superstar Ryley Batt, will want to go one better on their effort at the Chinese games and win back the gold which the team won at Sydney in 2000.

Those sports alone, chiefly swimming and athletics, should easily see the gold medal tally go into double figures before sports like cycling, equestrian, powerlifting, sailing and more.

We’ll be up against it with the British hosts having plunged an astronomic amount into funding for both Paralympic and Olympic athletes, but any review won’t be raising depressing concerns about the performance of our Paralympic athletes.

It’s time to get excited Australia, with nine and a half hours of live television coverage daily to keep you happy and up to date with our teams’ exploits.

A Quick and Free Review of the Australian Swimming Team

There is no doubt that the Australian swimming team performed poorly as compared with a number of previous Olympic campaigns. Those events we were expected to win, we either got painstakingly close, or our swimmers fell in a heap. Similarly, some of those swimmers that did not face a burden of expectation broke through to medal, at times in events you would’ve been excused to think we never had any hope in.

Our performances in the pool, which usually get us off to a strong start in the medal tally and up there with the best countries just didn’t happen. This has sparked a much publicised review by former Olympic champion swimmer Susie O’Neill and experienced swimming coach Bill Sweetenham.

The idea of a review of the sporting performance of our swimmers is not new. As Head Coach Leigh Nugent has pointed out, the swim team is always subject to a performance review after every major meet and well, the Olympics is up there with the major aquatic events that exist.

There should be absolutely no doubt that each individual swimmer and their respective coaches trained to exactly the same level they ordinarily would. This means intense and event targeted training for the whole time each swimmer remained with their local club’s before heading overseas for the pre-Olympics swimming camp and then London.

Tapering too would not have proved an issue and would have been closely supervised by the elite coaches travelling with the Australian swimming team in the weeks before London 2012. It is just too ridiculous a proposition to think that such high-level experts would have got the tapering of any of the athletes wrong.

Last night the ABC’s program 7.30 weighed into the debate with a report on the discord between the swimmers, their families and Swimming Australia. The story reviewed a shocking level of disdain for the athletes in one of our most successful sports at the Olympic level.

Daniel Kowalski, a former swimmer who now represents the Australian Swimmers’ Association said that just before the London Olympics commenced, while some Australian swimmers were in training together overseas, pay arrangements were changed. The pay scale was changed to a “high-performance model”.

In this model all of our swimmers were to be paid a small base rate with a significant performance bonus, if, and only if they received gold, silver or bronze from their respective events. The performance pay would net gold medal winners $35,000 and those who made the final but came in last $4000 for each event. But if you swam in a race and didn’t progress into the final, no dough.

Ordinarily, performance pay is a brilliant concept, providing that it doesn’t detract from a base wage. Much more importantly, bonuses for strong performances are an excellent idea providing you don’t do as Swimming Australia did and foist it upon athletes so near to a major competition, especially the highest of events.

Now, you might be wondering how this would impact on performance? The answer is quite simple. If you are worrying at the last minute before you’re expected to perform strongly in your chosen profession about how much money you might be taking home and it could affect how much money you have to pay bills, you’re not going to be thinking of your race so much.

There’s also another not so insignificant factor which may have impacted on our performances. That is the incredibly poor decision of the swimming team to not take a psychologist with them to the pre-games training camp and then into the Olympic village. There was nobody there that swimmers could trust, especially in light of Swimming Australia’s decision on pay, to air their concerns and emotions. This means there was nobody in London with the squad that would have been able to respond in a properly trained and professional manner to the worries that might distract the attention of athletes.

Another factor that cannot be discounted and which could have been more significant than any other factor in the sub-par performance of our swimming team is the performance of other countries. It’s not as if we didn’t contribute significant funds to our Olympians, we did. The strong performance of swimmers from other nations was probably unexpected. It should have been figured into the equation as a real possibility given the changing state of our swimming team, with past champions suffering from injury and others who were set to retire after London.

It’s clear that the cultural issues within the peak swimming body which undoubtedly flowed through to the swimming team were a major distraction for our swimmers. The significance of this was accelerated by the inability of members of the team to access professional psychological help while overseas.

There was certainly no problem with the workload of our athletes before the Olympics and the tapering while overseas clearly would not have been an issue either.

It is also undoubtedly a strong possibility that our swimmers were also outperformed in their events.

Clearly there are a number of things to work on before the next major international competition, the FINA World Championships in Barcelona next year, most within the control of the governing body for swimming in Australia. Some brutal honesty and soul searching is required during the upcoming review.

The Mad Scramble is On, But the Show Will be Good

There are now only 8, yes EIGHT days left until that massive sporting event the London Olympics kicks off with what is sure to be an amazing opening ceremony  followed by two weeks of great sporting feats. Moments of sporting brilliance and achievement will abound. Until recent weeks and months it has been a good lead-up with the Brits looking more than ready to host such an epic sized event.

But then in recent times we’ve seen basic security cock-ups, the acknowledgement that all tickets were not and would not be sold, including football tickets no less. The arrival of the first athletes has seen the operation of Olympic only lanes commence on the roads, complete with a lost driver and traffic snarls. Then just yesterday an acknowledgement that one part of the opening ceremony act would need to be dropped to facilitate spectators making the last transport services of the evening. Oh and then there’s the weather. Finally, overnight came confirmation that airport border security staff would strike the day before the games begins.

But despite the scrambling things will be fine, there might be some hiccups along the way but all in all the show, including the bookend ceremonies will go on and will run smoothly.

The venues for one are finished and will be able to house the sports and events trouble free for the entire period of the Olympics. There won’t be any holes in the track, bumps where there should not be bumps or poorly designed stadiums.

The security shortfall caused by poor coordination on the part of G4S, the company contracted to provide basic security in the Olympic precinct and event locations will likely be fully plugged. The shortfall will likely be made up by police and defence personnel who will be redeployed from their regular postings to make up for this awful mistake, but it will happen, it has to.

The customs strike will cause some serious gridlock and delays at the airport and is an arrogant and calculated move attempting to embarrass the government. Above all though, people will still get to the Olympic events even after annoying delays which could have been postponed to a time where it wouldn’t result in negative perceptions from the all important tourist market.

All tickets will not be sold, that is a given. There will be numerous venues operating below capacity. But this won’t matter too much, except for the bottom line of the organisation behind the games. More will be given away and there will be a mad scramble to sell as many tickets as possible, even to the bloody football in England for goodness sake. That will surely cause some embarrassment for a soccer, sorry, football loving nation like Ol’ Blighty.

Traffic snarls will cause some headaches for the English people and Londoners with athlete only lanes in operation around and between venues. This will also lead to increased pressure on the public transport network which will be at peak capacity, even overflowing from now until the last of the athletes and visitors depart the nation.

The organising committee can only hope that all other drivers other than one this week actually know where they’re headed, but surely they do and in any case that is a pretty trivial example of an “issue”.

An act was dropped from the opening ceremony overnight, just over a week from the extravaganza commencing. That will be annoying for that act, who were undoubtedly excited to be playing their part in such an historic event. It will also be a tad embarrassing for the artistic director and the organisers who will not have wanted to come to that kind of realisation so close to the beginning of London 2012.

The weather might keep some of the spectators away but the large international contingent and the absolute Olympic fanatics are likely to still want to venture to events. In any case, many events take place in covered facilities anyway.

But these issues, save for likely gridlocked transport for regular Londoners and the broader English population and the serious, but likely to be overcome security shortfalls will not impact negatively on the running of the actual events. There may well be some holes in crowd shots at some of the events because not all tickets were sold and the weather might be a bit shite, but all are likely to go ahead with a level of ease, even if some have to be delayed because the weather is a bit dreary. Embarrassment might just be the worst outcome, along with a bit of a hit on the bottom line.

A Look at the Sport of Goalball

With the London Paralympics nearing commencement it’s time to have a look at another of the 21 sports that will be a part of the 2012 Games. After taking a look at the rough and tumble of Wheelchair Rugby, otherwise known as ‘Murderball’ it’s time for a change of pace and time to look at the rather unique sport of Goalball.

THE PARTICIPANTS:

Goalball is a sport for vision-impaired athletes that was developed to help blind World War II veterans in their post-war rehabilitation. It became a Paralympic sport at the 1980 Paralympics after being a demonstration event at the 1976 event.

A game of Goalball consists of two teams of 3 visually impaired athletes, with one centre player and two wingers on each team. Three substitutes are also permitted.

The athletes with a lower level of blindness wear blindfolds when competing in the sport which allows for less visually impaired athletes to compete in the sport with people that have a higher level of blindness.

THE GAME ITSELF:

The game is played by the teams participating taking turns at rolling or throwing a ball that has a bell in it toward their opponents goal with the aim of the defensive team being to block the ball, by listening to where the bell sound is coming, from going into the goal at their respective end of the field.

The players must throw the ball within 1o seconds or an infraction has occurred.

The game has two 10 minute halves.

PENALTIES:

Possession is generally lost if a player throws the ball before the match official has indicated for play to begin, if the ball goes over the sideline, or the ball rebounds off a defending player, crossbar or goalposts and goes back over the centre line.

For more serious rule breaches a penalty throw is awarded if:

  • Players interfere with their eyeshades
  • Excessive noise is created which distracts from the ability to hear the bell in the ball
  • If coaching comes from the benches after the referee has said “quite please”
  • The ball does lands short of the opponents court, too long or too high
  • Not being in team area when defending your goal line
  • Delaying the game in a deliberate manner
  • If the same player throws the ball for a 3rd time in a row
  • For conduct against the spirit of the sport

When a penalty is awarded only one defender is allowed on the court, effectively like a football goalkeeper during a penalty shootout.

THE DEFENDING CHAMPIONS:

At the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, the women’s Goalball final was won by the United States of America in a very tight match with the USA prevailing over host nation China 6-5.

The men’s gold medal match was won by the Chinese team over Lithuania after being two goals down with less than a minute to go in the game, closing the gap and winning by one in the end.

The bronze medal was won in the men’s competition by the Swedish team and by the Danish team in the women’s event.

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