By Mike Broderick
September 8, 2016
Today marks the start of the greatest sporting competition most of the world has never seen.
Action at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games begins, launching 10 days of competition across 23 sporting events such as Archery, Sitting Volleyball, Judo, and “Murderball” (Wheelchair Rugby).
The best disabled athletes in the world – representing 160 countries – will battle it out for Gold, Silver, and Bronze in a multi-event competition rivaled only by the Olympics itself.
For those lucky enough to be able to see the Paralympics either live in Rio (where tickets are still available) or live on television or on the web, they are a “must watch”- whether you are a casual sports fan who is able-bodied or a sports fanatic with a disability like me.
I grew up in a family where my four siblings played multiple sports, where my Mom was an outstanding Candlepin Bowler, and where my Dad started an entire sports league in my hometown so that my sister, her friends, and hundreds of other girls and young women could compete in a variety of sports.
I was the native son of a sports obsessed town (Holyoke, Massachusetts, USA) in sports-fanatical New England – where they note the passing of the seasons by what kind of ball you’re throwing or hitting and what kind of bat or stick you’re swinging.
From the moment I saw my Dad flood and freeze our back yard so that my brothers and sister could learn to skate, to the many hours I spent watching my beloved Boston Red Sox on TV with my Dad and Mom, and my first trip to Fenway Park in Boston to see hometown hero Fran Healy play for the visiting Kansas City Royals, I was hooked on sports.
It didn’t matter that I was born with Cerebral Palsy and walked on crutches. Sports became my passion – a constant in my life. They brought me a lot of pleasure and even served occasionally as a helpful distraction when my painful leg braces kept me from sleeping. I’d turn on the radio to hear the Red Sox playing late games out on the West Coast. And eventually I would fall asleep as the games stretched deep into the night.
And I wasn’t just watching and listening to sports. My able-bodied siblings and friends included me in their games. (They were cool like that, and still are.)
I spent countless hours with them hitting a Wiffle Ball (using the “Wiffle Crutch” I rigged together), stopping street hockey shots (with my knee pads and scarred-up Gerry Cheevers mask), and trying (usually badly) to defend the basketball hoop that was nailed to our garage.
All those hours were more than just fun. They taught me confidence and huge lessons like how to compete, how to perfect my skills, how to argue and negotiate, how to win, and how to lose. More importantly, they helped me integrate with my friends and be “part of the gang”.
I also served as official scorer – literally becoming a team member – for several baseball, softball, and basketball teams from Little League through High School and at Tufts University – meeting some of my best friends along the way.
And there were other real-world benefits too: Learning to write and edit as Sports Editor of my high school paper; gaining my first paid job in my teens as Official Scorer and Timekeeper at the local ice hockey rink for five frozen hours on Saturday mornings; working as a stringer on the Sports Desk of our local newspaper on Friday nights during my Senior Year of high school; and getting my first paid experience working behind a microphone as a public address announcer for high school football and baseball.
Strangely enough, sports even helped me spend a bit more time with other disabled kids.
Growing up as an educationally “main-streamed,” high-achieving “Super Crip” (I was a four-year High School Class President and later a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) amongst able-bodied family and friends, my time with other disabled kids was somewhat limited. (And, truth be told, back in those days when I didn’t see myself as even having a disability, I kind of liked it that way. In hindsight, I now see how helpful it was to have had even limited socialization with other kids with disabilities during my journey to understanding and accepting my own disability.)
There were the kids I met from all over the world during several lengthy hospitalizations at the Shriners Hospital in Springfield, Massachusetts. Or the ones I met at Easter Seals charity programs where I learned to swim and bowl and attended summer camp at Camp Jolly (yes, Camp “Jolly”), as well as disabled sports days. (Where I learned that, when it came to competing against my disabled peers, all that time I’d spent playing with my able-bodied siblings and friends didn’t count for much.)
All of this – including my many years of being a hard luck Red Sox and New England Patriots fan before they became multiple Champions in the 2000s – helped me understand the power and beauty of sports.
And none of it prepared me for how great the Paralympics truly are.
When my wife Suz and I first arrived in England after our wedding and honeymoon in the summer of 2004, I had never seen the Paralympics. There had been no live television coverage in the U.S. (As far as I’m aware, Rio 2016 will mark the first live Paralympics coverage by NBC and its networks for American viewers.)
I had heard of the Paralympics, as I had worked with Juan and Tory Dixon, who had won medals for Team USA in the 1980s in weightlifting and swimming respectively. They told me how fantastic the competition was, but I just couldn’t picture it.
Then I moved to the UK. Newly arrived and not yet working, I plowed headfirst into the Athens Olympics, and it was fantastic.
The UK coverage on the BBC was superb. Event after event was broadcast live, available on BBC 1 and BBC 2 and digital streaming. There were no overly long “Up Close and Personal” stories about the athletes to gum up the works; No over-reliance on tape-delayed broadcasts; No insistence that nearly every event they televised had to include a Team GB athlete.
I could watch athletes I’d never seen before compete for countries I only knew about from Geography books.
I could watch the martial arts, which I love. There was Judo, and Taekwondo, and Fencing, and Wrestling, and, I think, the entire Boxing tournament.
I was in my element, in my glory, binge-watching before there was such a thing as binge-watching.
And then the Olympics ended.
Over the next few weeks, I came down off of my Olympics high.
And then I thought I would give the Paralympics a try – not knowing what to expect. I was intrigued and a bit excited, but not expecting too much. I was wondering if I’d be disappointed.
And then I was blown away again.
I watched in astonishment as Chinese swimmer He Junquan blazed through the pool with no arms to win 4 Gold Medals. (And it wasn’t his disability per se that had impressed me. When I was 10 years old, I’d spent the better part of 3 months in the hospital next to a boy named Jorge from Portugal who had no arms. He was a funny, kind, mischievous kid who could draw incredibly well using just his toes, some crayons, and a blank sheet of paper.)
To this day, nearly 12 years later, I still remember He Junquan’s incredible athleticism. And I still marvel that he had had the strength and body control to not only generate Gold Medal-winning-speed, but also to even be able to get his mouth out of the water to breathe while he swam.
In that Paralympics, I also remember cheering for Team USA’s Michael Prout a young guy from back home in western Massachusetts (West Springfield, or “West-side”, as we call it) very near to where I grew up, as he won a Gold and a Bronze in the pool. And I remember thinking: “Here I am 3,000 plus miles away from home watching a kid, who grew up 15 minutes from me, win a medal for his country, and my country-men can’t even see it.”
The Paralympics were another binge-watch of incredible sporting achievements – that all stood on their own as pure sport – with the true excitement not necessarily in the compelling back stories of the athletes, but rather in what happened on the court, in the water, on the field, and between the lines.
Subsequent Paralympics have generated other great moments that I will never forget:
- Seeing Team GB’s then 13-year-old swimming sensation Ellie Simmonds fly to two Gold Medals at the Beijing Paralympics;
- Watching Wheelchair Basketball and “Murderball” with my wife and rooting for Team USA and Team GB. (Murderball: the insane car crash derby that is Wheelchair Rugby. Made famous in the 2005 documentary “Murderball”.); and
- Screaming my head off in our kitchen as I watched Team GB’s Richard Whitehead storm from the back end of the pack, his prosthetic blades swishing and grinding on the rain-soaked London track, before steaming across the tape – arms raised in a “Welcome to the Gun Show” pose – to win the 200 Meter T42 Gold in World Record time. It was absolutely thrilling, and it is one of my all-time favorite sporting moments.
The skill level of the Paralympians surprized me. It impressed me.
And it was a revelation for me as an American to learn that the Team GB Paralympians are feted just like the Team GB Olympians. (A right and proper parity befitting the spiritual home of the Paralympics.)
They are treated like national heroes, and many are celebrities and household names, with several garnering Royal Honours, including Knighthoods and Damehoods.
They are even promoted as “The Superhumans” by UK Paralympic Broadcaster Channel 4 – a hyperbolic but successful “all in” approach to promoting the athletes and the Games. (In a forthcoming article, I’ll discuss my thoughts on the impact of the Paralympics and this branding on societal views of disability.)
If you love sports, if you love the Olympics, if you are awed by incredible skill, focus, athleticism, and the determination to deliver on a four-year dream, watch the Rio 2016 Paralympics.
And prepare to be amazed.
 There will be 165 hours of coverage here in the UK on Channel 4 TV and at http://paralympics.channel4.com, as well as additional coverage on BBC Radio 5 Live, and 70 hours on NBC, NBCSN, and the NBC Sports App in the USA. See: http://www.nbcolympics.com/news/paralympic-schedule. Also see: https://www.paralympic.org/watch-rio-2016 for listings in your country.
 Mainstreaming was the process through which disabled children attended public schools, rather than special education schools for children with disabilities.