Faster, higher, further, better – the unbeatable spirit of the Paralympics

From its inception out of the ashes of the Second World War, the Paralympics has grown into the world’s third largest sporting event. We speak to track legends Jonnie Peacock and Tatyana McFadden about the stories of strength and resilience that give the movement flight

In a parallel, non-pandemic universe, the Tokyo Paralympics was the greatest sporting occasion of 2020; thousands of athletes from across the world demonstrating the peak potential of human body and spirit.

While the event, along with the Olympics, was postponed, the achievements of Paralympic athletes are not limited to what happens between the starting gun and the finish line. Competitions are not taking place, races are not being run, but victories are still being won.

The impact the Paralympics has had on the global community is immeasurable, and one of Britain’s greatest gifts to the world, according to two-time gold medallist Jonnie Peacock.

“The home of the Olympics may be in Greece, but the home of the Paralympics is in the UK, and we should all feel very proud about what that platform has gone on to become,” he tells The Big Issue.

Peacock represents Great Britain and Northern Ireland in a new Netflix documentary, Rising Phoenix, which tells the story of the Games from its inception at Stoke Mandeville hospital in Buckinghamshire where Dr Ludwig Guttmann, a Jewish refugee, used sport to help rehabilitate wounded soldiers returning from the war in Europe to the Paralympic movement becoming the world’s third largest sporting event. Rising Phoenix outlines the enormous impact the Paralympics has on changing attitudes, progressing society, bringing people together to celebrate our differences.

First, the sport. The Duke of Sussex, reflecting on London 2012 in the film, says: “The sport was incredible… undoubtedly better than the Olympics itself.” The must-binge series of lockdown, The Last Dance, which captures the supremacy of Michael Jordan in the 1990s, proves that great athleticism is powered by immense psychological resolve, audacious ambition and ruthless determination. Attributes defining every Paralympian.

“I’ve always loved athletics,” Jonnie Peacock says. “It’s straight-up raw, who can put down the most power, who can throw this object furthest. It’s down to how far the human body can be pushed.

“I don’t know what it is, pressure just brings the best out in me. I don’t really feel the pressure though. In my head, it’s like a computer programme. I’m not taking everything in, thinking, oh my god there’s loads of people here. I’m too busy thinking about the technical things I have to do. If I make a mistake, it’s the difference between winning and coming last. If I don’t hit a position straight away, I’ve lost the race in three steps.”

One of the first lessons Peacock learned is that during a race, the other competitors are almost an irrelevance. “As a sprinter you have a lane that separates you and the other athletes so there’s no point worrying about them because there’s nothing I can do to control the other guys. The only thing I can change is what happens between these lines in my lane.

“Easier said than done,” Peacock adds. “Those 60 metres of a race I’m at the front, I always worry someone’s going to fly past me. You get quite stressed, the Deirdre Barlow neck comes out. I’ve learned to deal with that better, slowly, as time progresses. And you can translate that into life.”

Peacock had knee surgery in December and couldn’t walk in January, so is reasonably pleased the Paralympics’ postponement allows him more time to train.

“It was going to be tight but I was relatively confident I could get back to where I was,” he says. “It’s just that it might not have been enough. We need to progress again, we need to see improvements.”

Will a fresh generation of athletes inspired by his exploits at London 2012 be chasing after him?

“I hope not! When I started school and tried to look for disability sport around me, it was impossible to find information about anything local to me. Now there are loads of websites that allow you to punch in your postcode and they can see everything from yoga to martial arts. I would definitely argue that wouldn’t have been the case had 2012 not been as successful as it was.”

But availability and accessibility to sporting opportunities, like Peacock’s track time, can always be improved.

“No one should ever be happy with where we are because that’s how we progress. If we can do it better, then we should try and change it,” he says.

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Athletes are always pushing for faster, higher, stronger in competition and this creates impact that spreads far beyond sport. Twelve years after Dr Guttmann’s first Stoke Mandeville Games, the first Paralympics took place in Rome, running in parallel, hence ‘para’, with the 1960 Olympics, with 400 athletes from 23 countries taking part. This began a tradition that grew every four years until 1980, when Moscow refused to host the Paralympics because the Soviets denied having any disabled people in the country (Arnhem in the Netherlands stepped in to host that year).

This attitude persisted in Russia when Tatyana McFadden was born in St Petersburg (then Leningrad) in 1989. She had spina bifida and her mother was unable to look after her so Tatyana spent the first few years of her life in ‘Orphanage number 13’, learning to walk on her hands to keep up with other children.

In 1993 a US delegation visited. Deborah McFadden, then commissioner of disabilities for the US government, saw Tatyana and was determined not to leave the orphanage without her, adopting and bringing her home to Maryland.

“Coming to the US, I was very sick,” Tatyana McFadden recalls now. “My legs were actually behind my back. I had 10 surgeries, I was always in and out of the hospital. The doctors thought my life was going to be below average, my parents thought otherwise. They are the ones that put me in a local sports programme. I’m so thankful for that.

McFadden took up wheelchair racing aged eight. “I feel like the common theme for Paralympians is that sport gave us a rebirth in life. It gave me a chance to dream.”

She took part in her first Paralympics in Athens in 2004, aged 15 and since then has won 17 Paralympic medals, including three golds in London and four in Rio. She was also the first person ever to win a marathon Grand Slam in the same year (coming first in the four major marathons, Boston, Chicago, New York and London), which she then repeated another three times.

Since Athens, with its empty arenas, Tatyana McFadden has seen the movement grow exponentially. “People didn’t know what the Paralympics were. Coming home from Athens, everyone celebrated the Olympians, but the Paralympians weren’t even acknowledged.

“The tipping point for us was London in 2012. I feel like it just took off and that set the stage. We’ve gotten more coverage and sponsorship and our whole organisation has been renamed the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee.”

McFadden explains that while American Olympic athletes would get a gold medal bonus of $35,000, Paralympic athletes would get only $4,000, but in 2018 it was announced the athletes would all be paid equally. “I’ve never had equal pay before. I’ve worked so hard to figure out ways to stay in the game, to make a living so I can have a roof over my head and continue to train and travel. Tokyo’s going to be a breath of fresh air. I’m really looking forward to being a true equal.”

Few of us will be affected by the amount we might earn for winning gold, but McFadden is responsible for a significant change when it comes to equality at a grassroots level, campaigning to change the law so that disabled people could not be excluded from school sports teams.

She explains: “High school was the hardest thing for me. I was discriminated against because I was different. People told me to do sports with my own kind. That’s what they said, my own kind, like I’m a Martian.

“And I said, no, I don’t want to live my life this way. We’re teaching these high schoolers that it’s 100 per cent OK to discriminate against someone with a disability so when they get older, if they’re hiring someone and they happen to have a physical disability, they will absolutely turn them down.”

McFadden worked with President Obama to get Tatyana’s Law ratified across the US. And then she set her sights on Russia.

With Sochi hosting the Winter Olympics in 2014, McFadden decided to try out cross-country skiing.

“It had always been my dream to have my adoptive family and my birth family at one competition,” she says. “So when Sochi rolled around, I was like, yes, this will be amazing. What irony, that we’re all here again together as one kind of big family.

“It was great to tell my story, share my experience to show how people with disabilities can live normal lives, you just have to give us that chance. The cherry on top was getting a silver medal. Now [Russia] look at their Paralympians as heroes.”

Tatyana McFadden served as a producer on Rising Phoenix, ensuring people with disabilities were well represented behind the scenes and helping assemble the group of athletes the film focuses on, who, McFadden says, make her own story seem boring. The title of the film borrows the nickname of Bebe Vio (pictured below), an Italian fencer who developed meningitis C as an 11-year-old and had both legs and arms amputated.

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Jean-Baptiste Alaize, a long-jumper [that’s him in the main pic], was attacked by the Hutus during the Burundi civil war. He suffered four machete blows, one cutting off his leg. Aged three at the time, he then watched as his mother was killed. As Alaize says in the film: “I run to escape. It’s as if I’m trying to escape what happened. Falling, getting up again, falling, getting up again, that’s life and this is relevant to many people.”

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With the Paralympics unable to take place, Rising Phoenix picks up the baton, celebrating the history of an event built from the ashes of war, the darkest of days, that nevertheless illuminates the world, impacting the day-to-day lives of millions.

Even though he’s a veteran competitor, Peacock says he learned a lot from the film. “It changed my perception. It’s an incredible emotional rollercoaster. One minute literally sitting there about to cry and the next minute you’re feeling like you want to go and take on the world,” he says.

Peacock has in the past pushed against the patronising notion that Paralympians should be seen as beacons of inspiration for non-disabled people.

“I’ve always been about the sport, but this taught me how important everything else is – the history, what people have overcome and how important it is that they represent in these dark times a light at the end of the tunnel. There are better days, you can take life into your own hands and make a change.

“People see others with disabilities and they automatically put them into this box,” Peacock continues.

“It’s the same with everyone – we have a tendency as a human race to judge people by appearance. I hope that’s something as a society we are all changing at the moment.

“The Paralympics just shows how wrong you are to do that. These rules that we confine everybody with are not true.”

Rising Phoenix is on Netflix