I hated gym class as a kid. I hated it like I hate cancer, fascism, and most of the current crop of superhero movies. I hated it mostly because my participation in that nightmare school period boiled down to me sitting on the sidelines flipping those plastic score cards. Believe me, that wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I had little choice back then. See, I was born with spina bifida, which is a neurological condition that affects fetuses in-utero, leaving their spines malformed and usually resulting in some form of paralysis. The painter Frida Kahlo had it. The singer John Mellencamp has it. Theirs was not so severe. My spina bifida left me paralyzed from the knees down, forcing me to use crutches to walk. No leg power meant no kickball. No running from balls aimed at my head or from other students trying to tackle me. The kids would either pick me last, or the teacher would simply nod and point gravely toward the dreaded score cards.
I went through grammar school on the sidelines and in high school I started writing, an experience that taught me how to walk through life by engaging my mind and my heart. I wrote articles for the school paper, scrawled bad poetry into marble notebooks for imaginary girlfriends, and dreamed up movie scripts. (Movies: my first and truest love. Even as my physical challenges made me an outsider, movies were my connection to the larger world.) But it was also a sport-centric school and the specter of my athletic shortcomings would always snipe at my leg-braced heels, despite a brief stint on the freshman swim team. While I love the water and have a great deal of upper body strength, I hated placing last.
It was with this ambivalent sports history in mind that this gym-allergic movie nerd found himself on a Turkish Air plane that seemed straight out of 1973, flying from Los Angeles to Sochi, Russia, to attend and reflect on the 2014 Sochi Paralympics. I went there as a cultural blogger for the Wheelchair Sports Federation after responding to a Facebook post from a brilliant photographer friend to join her media team. My super-easy assignment: reconciling the Paralympics in a country that had no disability culture. No, that’s underselling it. Russia has disability culture like North Carolina has trans-friendly public bathrooms. It just isn’t a thing.
If I had been born there in 1979, I probably would have been ripped from my parents and sent abroad or to an institution, never to be seen or heard from again. That was the prevailing attitude about folks like me. We needed to be hidden from view because we represented the worst parts of humanity. From the Russian Revolution of 1917 (whose Council of Minsters of the USSR, sweet teddy bears one and all, developed an ideology against “defectives”) until 1993, when provisions were established to protect children from institutionalization, Russia’s prevailing viewpoint was to keep what was weak hidden from the world. And even as those provisions were enacted, the air around disability was thick and noxious.
So, here I was, this Irish New York movie punk blessed with spina bifida, come to pick a fight with an entire nation over what I perceived as backwards attitudes. I spent hours poring over Russian history as it related to disability as well as the history of the Paralympic Games themselves. I was angry at the Russians for ignoring us and I was angry that my voice might not be heard, however loud I screamed. I thought I would come away from my time in the bustling Olympic Village with an overheated laptop and self-righteous rage.
The author in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.
I was surprised to find myself incapable of writing angry. The Russians I met, particularly the young volunteers, were eager to share ideas about pushing their country forward toward acceptance and accessibility. “We came to be with you, not just to help you, because, you know, there’s no difference between us,” one young woman told me.
These games, the first of their kind in Russia, made it clear that the Paralympics is an institution that charts an essential step of human progress. It helped that I was surrounded by some Bad Motherfuckers with Disabilities. The Games show a section of the world population—a rather sizable one, it’s worth mentioning—not as powerless, misshapen invalids that needed to be hidden away, but as powerful Olympians who have no qualms about taking opponents out. Seeing Josh Sweeney, for example, lead the U.S. Team to victory over Russia in sledge hockey—think “Mad Max” on ice—made the Cold Warrior in me proud to be an American. It showed a bunch of guys who might otherwise be written off—or worse—use strength and strategy to kick the shit out of their rivals—with or without functioning legs.
Sgt. Sweeney and a number of other veterans of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have used adaptive sports in order to put their lives back together after being injured while serving their country. In fact, that’s why the Paralympics happened in the first place.
The year was 1944 and the place was World War II-era England. Neurosurgeon Ludwig Guttmann, a Jewish neurosurgeon who had fled the Nazis, saw the waves of soldiers coming back from the war with their bodies and spirits shattered and decided to do something. Guttmann established the Stoke Mandeville Games as a form of therapy to repair those bodies and spirits through physical activity. The games quickly grew and by 1952, close to 130 athletes from England and the Netherlands joined in competition at the games. By 1960, the first international games, held in Rome, became what is now recognized as the inaugural Paralympics.
Each Olympic host city also holds the Paralympics—except when Moscow held the 1980 Summer Games. “There are no invalids in the USSR!” proclaimed a USSR official to a visiting reporter. 34 years later, there sure were—and they were out for gold and the opportunity to crush their opponents.
This summer, athletes with disabilities from around the globe will compete in over twenty events for the opportunity to show the world what their bodies, which would otherwise be judged as broken, can do. I’m particularly excited to watch wheelchair rugby, or “murderball,” as it is lovingly called due to the level of batshit violence that takes place during play. It is teeth-shatteringly intense, like watching a pair of charging rhinos against a speed metal soundtrack—turned up to eleven.
Is it transgressive that wheelchair users are doing this? You bet. Society is used to ignoring disability because, I think, we hold your own frailty up to you. The Paralympics argues, through competition and hard-won glory, that there is nothing frail about us. I could continue waxing poetic about what the Paralympic games mean to the human soul, but, YAWN. I prefer to concentrate on the furious physicality of the thing. Come September, you can expect a new kind of heat from the fiery wheels of warriors who are coming to rip apart their opponents—and your expectations.
I need to learn how to say “badass” in Portuguese.
Michael J. Dougherty is a New York-born writer/filmmaker with spina bifida now living and working in Los Angeles.