Last night marked the kickoff of the the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, the first of its kind in South America. Athletes from around the world will be competing in 22 events for over 200 medals. Some may view the Games as an attempt to level the playing field and give a bunch of sad cripples the opportunity to make themselves feel special on a world stage. However, the truth is that the Games stand apart because what these men and women are attempting to do is much harder, and not simply because of physical constraints. As they push themselves beyond impossible limits for anyone, they have the added burden of having to smash through the world’s perception of them. Not an easy task. So, if there is a gold medal for putting up with others’ nonsense while trying to prove to oneself of one’s abilities, they’ve already won.
As a place to start, though, and a way of putting a face on the Paralympic Games, here are 10 Athletes/Events to look out for over the next 11 days, in no particular order.
Jason Smyth, AKA “the world’s fastest Paralympian”, is a Northern Irishman born with a condition called Stargardt’s Disease that has left him nearly sightless, will be competing in the T13 100m on Thursday. He has medaled four times in the past and looks to repeat. One often likes to talk about inspiration as the millstone around the neck of every Paralympians, but just reading about this guy, let alone watching him, should inspire every American to put down the Doritos and, at the very least, take a walk somewhere.
9. The “other” Olympics in Rio, golf in its lineup for some reason? A boring game for boring people, to paraphrase George Carlin. You know what is not a boring sport and makes its Rio debut? The para-triathlon. It involves a 750m swim, followed by 20km bike ride and ends with a 5km run, ending again with those athletes making sweet, sweet love to anyone they want because they are masters of the universe.
Theresa Goh Rui Si, a Singaporean swimmer, was born with spina bifida. So was I. Goh is one of the fastest breast-stroke swimmers in the world. I can do the breast-stroke, sort of. She will be competing in four separate events in Rio on Thursday. I will doggy-paddle like a boss in my neighbor’s pool this weekend. Basically the same thing.
Archery is one of the oldest Paralympian sports, having debuted in Rome in 1960. Whether in a chair or missing a limb or living with a traumatic brain injury, each athlete tries to hit a target 122 cm wide from 70 metres away. There’s no joke here. I just think it’s super cool, and so should you.
Karamjyoti Dalal has won 5 medals in discus throwing in the past year. Oh, and she just started throwing last year. The last time I tried to learn how to do something that hard that quickly, well, let’s just say the fingerpaints got all over everything.
5. I detest talking about inspiration as it pertains to disability. But Ahmed Shafik might be the exception. An Iraqi born with polio was inspired by his father to lift weights. He moved to the United States and then joined the military, where he served for ten years. In his hope to bring home gold for Team USA, Shafik proves that Donald Trump-like xenophobia makes us not only dumber, but also weaker.
Jovane Silva Guissone of Brazil became a paraplegic after a robbery. He then went on to discover fencing, which he does from a wheelchair. In Brazil, they give you medals for this. In Los Angeles, they throw you out of the bar.
Judo made its Paralympic debut in Seoul in 1988. The visually impaired compete by slamming on another to the ground. Antônio Tenório Silva (also from Brazil) has done this four times in a row for the gold, and he did it completely blind. Who needs eyes when you’ve got strength and gravity on your side? I mean, I’m sure a weaker, sobbing opponent doesn’t hurt, but, still….
Russia? Oops, never mind. You know, it was only a matter of time before a doping scandal would break among the disability community. I’m just glad it’s that and not a “Sneaky Robot Legs” scandal. Maybe next year.
Wheelchair Rugby. Ah, yes, my beloved “murderball”. It is a game of gods atop iron horses vying for dominance while knocking each other’s teeth loose. It makes “Mad Max: Fury Road” look like….well, “Mad Max Fury Road” with wheelchairs. It is a glorious bit of insane business and should be watched, absorbed, and loved by all.