Watching the amazing performance of those with disabilities, at the opening ceremony in Tokyo on 24th August, I was humbled, to say the least. I have all faculties intact and wonder what I have achieved compared to these, who are overcoming adversity. The wonderful performance by a violinist, a young girl whose right arm that held the bow was just rods and wires from shoulder downwards, who played deftly will be remembered for decades to come.
By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana
The prolonged drought, which some thought may never end, is over at last! We have won a gold medal in the Olympics and all kudos to Dinesh Priyantha Herath who did it in style, by setting a new Paralympic world record in the men’s F46 javelin throw. It was a respite, though temporary, for the long-suffering Sri Lankans as eloquently stated in the editorial “A man worth his weight in gold” (The Island, 31 August). One would have thought, no one would disagree with the editor’s assessment but, unfortunately, there are unpatriotic idiots. The translation of a social media post, forwarded to a WhatsApp group, reads: “Sri Lanka is a funny country where those who should go before war crimes tribunals, instead go to Olympics to win medals”! No, it is not translated from Tamil. It would not have been surprising had a maniacal supporter of the Tigers uploaded it but this was posted , in Sinhala, by a former MP who represents another political party that metamorphosed from a terrorist group. I am not sure whether it is a new post or an old one; if new, it is in very poor taste. However, if it is old, this unprecedented achievement is a reminder to these unpatriotic politicians that our Ranaviruwo are good at not only winning wars but also gold!
Having had the luxury of time, thanks to retirement, I was able to watch the Olympics and Paralympics in 2012, 2016 and am watching the delayed 2020 events. Having observed closely and considering the additional burden imposed on them, having to overcome adversity in the form of various disabilities, I have no doubt that the true Olympians are the Paralympians.
In fact, moved by the amazing performances during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Paralympics, I started penning a piece but other events overtook distracting my attention. Everything happens for the best, they say, and the delay was worthwhile, as I am able to complete my task with a sense of pride. I was yearning for, at least a bronze medal for our team in the Olympics, but the only purpose served was for some VIP politicians to attend with dubious funding! Paralympics, though considered not important enough to be watched by these VIPs, produced something spectacular, as another former soldier Dulan Kodituwakku, joined Dinesh, with a bronze medal. Had it not been for the involvement of the Army, we would not have been able to carry out such a massive vaccination campaign, poor Sri Lanka having vaccinated a higher percentage of adults than the much-acclaimed New Zealand! Political traitors, in truck with interested foreigners, are doing their utmost to tarnish the image of our Army but, by its actions, during the war and after, it has won the plaudits of all patriots.
Paralympic Games started long after the modern Olympic Games, which started in Athens, Greece, in 1896 though Ancient Olympics have been held from 8th century BCE to 4th century CE. Disabled athletes have competed in Olympics, Lis Hartel, a Danish equestrian, affected by polio, winning a silver medal in dressage at the 1952 Olympics. But before the start of Paralympics, they had no choice, playing in an unequal field.
The first organised event for disabled athletes, which coincided with the opening day of the 1948 London Summer Olympic Games, was the brain-child of German-born Dr Ludwig Guttmann, who escaped Jewish persecution, and worked in Stoke Mandeville Hospital, a rehabilitation hospital for injured soldiers. This was a Game for British World War II veterans with spinal cord injuries and was called the 1948 International Wheelchair Games. Guttman’s aim was to create an elite sports competition for people with disabilities that would be equivalent to the Olympic Games and he succeeded. The second games were held in 1952, also at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, when Dutch and Israeli veterans joined the British, making it the first international competition of its own kind. These competitions, known as the Stoke Mandeville Games, were the precursors of the Paralympic Games, Stoke Mandeville holding a similar place in the lore of the Paralympic movement as Greece holds in the Olympic movement.
The first official Paralympic Games, coinciding with the ninth Stoke Mandeville Games, was held in Rome in 1960. It was no longer limited to war veterans, 400 athletes from 23 countries competing. Since then, the Paralympic Games have taken place in the same year as the Olympic Games and although the Games were initially open only to athletes in wheelchairs, at the 1976 Summer Games athletes with different disabilities were included in the Games for the first time. This resulted in 1,600 athletes from 40 countries taking part. The 1988 Summer Paralympics in Seoul was another milestone for the Paralympic movement as it was in Seoul that the tradition of holding Paralympic Summer Games directly after the Summer Olympics, in the same host city, using the same facilities, started.
Watching the amazing performance of those with disabilities, at the opening ceremony in Tokyo on 24th August, I was humbled, to say the least. I have all faculties intact and wonder what I have achieved compared to these, who are overcoming adversity. The wonderful performance by a violinist, a young girl whose right arm that held the bow was just rods and wires from shoulder downwards, who played deftly will be remembered for decades to come. This is just one of many remarkable performances.
The theme of the evening was “Moving Forward: We Have Wings” and everything was around airports and aircraft. To highlight disability, 13-year-old Yui Wago performed the role of the ‘Little One-Winged Plane’, her wheelchair having only the right wing and a propeller at the back. Though she uses an electric wheelchair because of weakness in her left hand, she chose to use a manual one in the opening ceremony to make the performance more natural. She practiced three times a week, eight hours a day, and at one point suffered from an aching back. She gave a superb performance of an airplane that had once given up on flying, but realised its own potential after meeting other planes. I was waiting for her to be lifted up but, instead, clever technology made her appear to take off, which became blurred as, by that time, my eyes welled with tears!
Japan, one of our closest friends, gave us the opportunity to ‘take off’ in Tokyo and Dinesh’s achievement would be recorded in gold letters. I am in total agreement with the editor that he is worth his weight in gold and do hope many others would tread the golden path he laid.