Jamie Bedard, reviews Channel 4s ‘Inside Incredible Athletes’ - screened on 29 August 2010 / 1 October 2010
My initial misgivings over the title, with scary reverberations of the deeply patronising film ‘Inside I’m Dancing’, soon receded as a highly-polished and creative documentary revealed the characters amongst, stories behind and challenges facing British Paralympians as they gear up to the London 2012.
The Paralympic movement has come along way since humble beginnings in Stoke Mandeville in 1948, and the programme provided compelling evidence that disabled athletes deserve equal billing with their Olympic counterparts.
As a disabled artist, I have been circumspect at best and dubious at worst, around the Paralympics. The political fissures between disabled sportspeople and artists are well engrained, and each have operated in silos in the past, but London 2012 is seen as an opportunity of bring these two communities together.
Personally, I am fundamentally lazy and totally devoid of any sporting prowess, and could not understand why someone would put themselves through such pain and hard work needed to enter a sporting arena. Politically, I suspected that Paralympic sport was primarily viewed, by a non-disabled audience, as an exercise in overcoming the odds, or worst still, a series of activities rather than elite sporting events. Also, I assumed that those disabled people involved were somehow seeking acceptance, by engaging on the peripheries of non-disabled pursuits and being an adjunct to the main event.
All these notions were roundly and gratifyingly challenged as real people told their stories, explained their motivations and displayed their talents. The personal and political became entwined, and whilst some themes rung true for me as an artist, others inspired a far deeper understanding of those pursuing their sporting dreams. The commonalities were eloquently captured by one Paralympian’s observation that Jimmy Saville was a ‘bit of a twat’ – we do all know the score, after all!
The ‘blood, sweat and tears’ of Paralympians often have different, and added dimensions to those of their non-disabled counterparts, with a trauma or accident providing a turning point for the individuals involved. Their stories feature accidents, medical interventions and life-changing re-evaluations. This could easily have become a ‘pity-fest’ concentrating on damage rather than opportunity, doors shutting rather than opening.
However, fact outweighed sentiment, with real people revealing real experiences as their motivations, choices and ambitions came to life. Medical interventions, operations and expertise were never far from the surface, but once again, my fears were allayed, as the athletes were shown in positions of knowledge and control, rather than as unsuspecting individuals placed under the microscope at the behest of the medical profession, or viewing public.
The focus was on a celebration with beautiful and athletic bodies, stylistically set in iconic places. A game of wheelchair rugby on the Woolwich Ferry, dressage in the Royal Albert Hall set to Swan Lake and football amongst the artefacts of a darkened and deserted British Museum. These landscapes were evocative and thrilling backdrops to the individual and collective endeavours in pursuit of excellence. The imagery was stunning, and promoted disability sport with coffee table elegance.
So, in conclusion, the Olympian ethos, experience and camaraderie came alive as we were placed in the minds and bodies of elite sportspeople as they prepared for 2012. The celebration of the body, in its many and varied forms challenged stereotypes and assumptions – even my own, as a ‘right-on’ disabled man. How these stories will unfold in dramatic conclusions in 2012 has got me hooked. Rarely has sport been presented with such care, honesty and joy, and how gratifying to watch disabled athletes the leading the way. I shall be booking my tickets as soon as possible!