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Going downhill

March 10, 2014

A couple of weeks ago Ben and I sat transfixed to the TV from six in the morning till nine at night, unpeeling our sleep-filled eyes to blink at the fluorescent-white slopes of the Winter Olympic slopes, and barely moving from the sofa in case we missed death-defying 1,000 degree spins, toe flips and back curls, becoming thoroughly dazzled by (and boringly knowledgeable about) triple toe flips and double batwings. In two weeks we consumed more telly than we had in the previous 12 months, and got a little teary-eyed when one of ‘our’ team done good and brought home a medal. Sochi fever hit headlines, twitter was a-blizzard with snow-filled hashtags, and BBC presenters got splendidly over-excited when we got within sniffing distance of a medal.

For a fortnight you simply couldn’t open a newspaper or switch on a social media account without being bombarded with tales of snowy derring-do, and we were united on public transport and in staff kitchen by patriotic heroism, and the intricacies of the curling hammer rule. The Winter Olympics rocked.

It was over far too quickly, but we were reassured that after a period of two weeks in which normal world events (war, famine, insane dictators and Dancing on Ice) resumed the headlines, our snowy fix could be sated again – with the Paralympics.

And so it began again on Friday evening, with Team GB celebrating its first medal on the first day. The medals run continued today, with Great Britain earning a gold and bronze in one event – the utterly amazing visually-impaired Super G, in which a guide skier, through the use of a Bluetooth headset, directs the partially sighted athlete down the hill – at 60mph.

If you don’t think that’s incredible enough, how about the monoski (or the ‘sitting’ ski, as it is referred to in rather subdued fashion) – in which a person straps themselves into a single ski, and goes hurtling down the same course. I’ll say that again – it’s a single ski. Which they sit on. It reminds me uncomfortably of a situation in which I found myself on last year’s ski trip, where upon seeing a group of my friends standing around chatting close to the bottom of a densely people-packed slope, I attempted to stop with what I thought would be a rather stylish swooshing manoeuvre. I managed instead to straddle a good friend of mine, sat on her snowboard. There was quite a bit of vertiginous mountain still in front of us, and snowboards are quite slippy things, and so I ended up sitting essentially on her head, skis akimbo, as we hurtled through the rapidly parting crowds to an undignified and really rather damp finish. Had I realised at the time that, in essence, this is what the Paralympians do, I may have had a better retort to the onlookers killing themselves with laughter.

Amazed by such feats, and by the heroic acts of bravery that got these athletes to the Games in the first place, I turned to the social media channels, the newspapers, TV news and radio, expecting similar amounts of joy and encouragement as had been experienced in February when the ‘real’ Games were on. To be disappointed. It’s like they’re not even happening. Admittedly, there has been some fairly headline-grabbing news going on recently, some not too far from where the Games are being held, but just hours after winning two medals I actually had to search the ‘sports’ pages of my preferred online newspaper (and had to scroll, unbelievably, past six separate stories about Arsenal) to find any news about it.

There’s blanket TV coverage up until 2.30 in the afternoon, but only a half-hour review show in the evening – and it’s on Channel 4. I’m sure I’m not the only person to have noticed, or indeed commented on, this fact, and I’m sure people were similarly outraged when the Summer Olympics were broadcast in the same fashion, with the ‘real’ games on the Beeb and the ‘other’ games relegated to Channel 4. And just why Sainsbury’s is the logical choice to sponsor it I couldn’t guess.

None of this would matter, of course, if the general sentiment around the Games was the same. The three presenters commentating on Jenny Jones’ bronze medal winning snowboard run were practically hyperventilating when she boarded into glory last month, and I think I saw her embarrassed reunion with her parents a dozen times in one day. But the commentary for our gold-winning run was staid, to say the least, and the review show is restrained and lacks the oomph that the big names of TV commentary (including everyone’s favourite auntie, Clare Balding) gave to the Games.

I want screaming! I want cheering! I want throat-catching teariness and over-sentimentality, I want Union Jack clad pensioners slipping over on the ice as they go to hug their medal-winning grandchildren.

There are over eleven million people with a limiting long-term illness, impairment or disability in Great Britain. These Games – like the Olympics in general – give people inspiration, encouragement and support, and help us believe we can rise to something better than the dismal commute, the job line or the queue for the checkout at Tesco. The Paralympic Games do not need to be relegated, as an after-thought; they should be celebrated and enthused about. It’s a time to point and stare – to say, wow, how does he do that, or how does she have the nerve…? It’s a time to explain to children that people are different, and that it’s not scary or wrong, and it’s not rude to talk about it. It’s time to cheer.

The good news is that the TV coverage given to this year’s games is a vast improvement on that of the past. The BBC gave Vancouver’s 2010 Games just one hour of coverage. One hour. A relatively brief curling match lasts longer than that! So let’s hashtag the sleet out of this final week of snowy winter fun, cheer on these amazing athletes, and show up the BBC for not buying the rights to the entire Olympics.

And my friend and I can rest assured that, out of those many dozens of people who watched us mono-head-ski past them a year ago in Chamonix, at least one will be impressed that we started the trend a year early.  #GoTeamGB

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