Tchau, Rio. A goodbye that comes almost before I learnt how to say good morning properly. The Rio Paralympics have been different. A good different. They weren’t London, they weren’t Beijing, they were a bit of Athens and a wee bit of Sydney.
Uncertain, not entirely wanted and Rio couldn’t really afford them.
But they tried - oh, how they tried. And they just about got it right. They filled a lot of seats, but not all of them. They showed some of it on television, but not all of it. The opening ceremony was not broadcast live by Globo, the media giant. India did not carry any live Paralympic action.
South Africa probably got more live Paralympics coverage on the telly than Brazil did through SuperSport with two 24-hour channels. SuperSport reached the most countries with their coverage throughout Africa. Britain, too, gave the Games the respect they deserved on Channel 4.
The Paralympics is about respect.
Channel 4 got the tone of the Paralympics just right with their show, ‘The Last leg: Live from Rio’. Adam Hills, Alex Brooker and Josh Widdicombe are the hosts of a part-comedy, part-sports show that, essentially, tells disabled jokes.
Some of the jokes, according to the Guardian, are borderline offensive (two of the hosts are disabled), and while they claim they are not trying to break down barriers, by being on prime time at 8pm and 1.8-million viewers every night, they are reaching an audience for whom the disabled are the forgotten people.
That is part of the aim of the Paralympics. To teach us that a wheelchair is contagious, that people in wheelchairs are not deaf or retarded, that the cerebral palsied are in an ongoing battle to keep control of parts of their bodies, that those without limbs find a way to drink beer or walk, and that the blind can find their way through the fog.
They are not superhuman, they are just humans who have found another way to do things. Regarding the Paralympians as superhumans is to suggest that the rest of the disabled just aren’t really trying.
The plight of the disabled in South Africa is an awful one. If Zanele Situ did not discover she could throw a javelin, they would still be heaving her in and out of taxis on her way to a job as a seamstress in Umtata.
That has been a part of the mission of Team South Africa in Rio. A reminder, every four years, that the disabled are among us. Their medals, the front page stories, the headlines, the welcome back at the airport tomorrow morning, that is the shop window. These are heroes who seek to inspire and remind.
Today Team SA will fly home with a decent medal haul. Not the 29 that was predicted, but that was never going to happen. Chef de Mission Leon Fleiser said he would be happy with 10 gold medals, and his team is a few shy of that. The rest of the world has caught up. Nigeria and Tunisia are both ahead of South Africa on the table. Nigeria identified their strengths. Six of their eight gold medals came from powerlifting. All of Tunisia’s gold medals are from athletics.
South Africa won gold in cycling, athletics and swimming.
The hard truth is that they missed their superstars. Oscar Pistorius is the name that dare not be spoken here. Team SA officials stepped in when journalists tried to ask 14-year old Ntando Mahlangu about whether he was the new blade runner. That did not stop some South African media from describing him as thus. It is not fair on the youngster. It’s lazy headline seeking. Mahlangu is Mahlangu, a kid in an Afrikaans school coming to terms with all the noise around him. He will be back for the next three or four Paralympics. He’s a superstar in the making, but he is not the second anybody.
Today he will bid farewell to Rio, his first Games. He will go back to school to catch up on some work, spend time with his family, play with his mates and go back to being a 14-year-old kid with carbon legs. Tomorrow he will arrive in South Africa as a disabled person who made the able-bodied stop for a while and think.
A reminder that the very able disabled are among us