"I love the Olympics. One of my earliest memories is of the entire family setting alarms for 4am to watch Robin Cousins win gold in the ice skating. We always watched every event, from archery to synchronised swimming.
I loved the superhuman excellence, the sheer grit and determination on the faces of the athletes. The dedication to perfection, the sacrifice that meant nothing – nothing was more important in their lives than that finish line or target.
I clearly remember the first time the Paralympics came onto my radar. I watched, literally open mouthed as Tanni Grey-Thompson set her eyes on a distant prize, gritted her teeth, shut out the thunderous noise of the crowds, then hurtled down the track with such speed and grace, it was hard to believe she had any kind of disability at all.
I was similarly awestruck by my first glimpse of the seemingly bionic Oscar Pistorius. As he raced down the track on those incredible prosthetics, I could hardly believe my eyes. Did I enjoy his achievement more because he was disabled? I think I did a little. That same sense of overcoming great challenges that I had always so admired in traditional Olympians, magnified 100 times in a man determined to be the best, whatever the odds.
When I heard that the UK had won their bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games I was thrilled. I saw it as an honour, a wonderful chance to show these superhuman athletes the respect and honour they deserved. To celebrate their achievements, and though I was ill myself by then, to actually have the chance to go to some events! I told my children about how wonderful it would be, described the atmosphere, saved every penny I could.
My first disappointment was the price of the tickets. I’d saved £1000, determined my children would get to take part in this historic, once in a lifetime event. But I wanted them to follow an event through some heats and a flagship final. Even my £1000 wasn’t enough, and even if it had been, the finals were all way to late in the evening for small boys. Soon, accounts of corruption and corporate favouritism emerged. Most of the best tickets would go to dignitaries or corporate sponsors. I was heartbroken.
Soon stories emerged of corruption all through the event – billions spent on terrifying security, a budget out of control, decadent perks for the Olympic committee that read like the last days of Rome. A dedicated traffic lane that could only be used by VIPs and sponsors. Still the budget raged out of control, mocking austerity Britain. More security, drones above the stadium, a London more evocative of the Gaza Strip.
But as a disability campaigner, the greatest injustice had to be the day we heard that Atos would be sponsoring the Paralympics. The very company charged with denying disability on a national scale through the government’s flawed and dangerous “Work Capability Assessments.” As hundreds of thousands of “everyday” disabled people were hounded and humiliated into poverty, told they were fit for work with kidney failure or paraplegia or MS, the same company had the cheek to buy a slice of this very “superhuman” image of disability.
It seemed utterly symptomatic of a corporate culture, out of touch and out of control. As Murdoch crumbled, the Met were exposed as complicit and corrupt, as our politicians fiddled their expenses, it seemed somehow fitting that a company hurting so many disabled people should sponsor the Paralympics. Dow Chemicals got in on the act too, causing India to threaten a boycott, MacDonald’s, that ultimate purveyor of junk food sponsoring the pinnacle of fitness; the very last gasps of decaying capitalism seemed to preen her feathers.
Some have called for a boycott of the Paralympics until Atos pull out. Personally, I think this is the worst possible thing we could do. Do the athletes who gave their every waking moment to be the best deserve to have that taken away from them by a company already responsible for the suffering of so many sick and disabled people? Is there any greater contrast to the arrogance and greed of the corporate sponsors than the selfless dedication of human beings who simply want to be the best they can be?
These same companies will try to tell us that these paragons of disability prove that anyone can do it if they only try. This is no more true for disabled people than it is for the able bodied. Very, very few of us are born to be the fastest or the best. But we are born to try, to strive, to overcome and to achieve our own greatness. May the incredible feats of our finest athletes – whether disabled or able bodied – remind our corrupt elite of what it is to be truly brave and decent.