NEWHAM BARNSLEY PARTNERSHIP – My Week at the Paralympics and the Cultural Olympiad

I’ll be honest right… like many, I wasn’t exactly interested in Paralympic Sport prior to London 2012. Even more honest, the nearest I’d been to a sporting event prior to this summer was when I sold pies in the away stand, aged 16, when Barnsley made the Premiership. Though, I am one of those folk who are drawn to the spectacle of a crowd and mass gatherings. It’s the same euphoria that you get at a gig. When I was a kid I used to be really into American Ice Hockey for some reason. I used to stay up past midnight and watch games from under the duvet. I used to memorize the team and player names. I grew out of that though when I discovered the majesty that was rock music.

Now, if I am drawn to a particular sport, it is athletics. There is something insanely super human about someone being the strongest or fastest person in the world; so much more so that football or team sports that totally have no interest for me whatsoever.

Now, I was drawn to the Olympics Games initially because of the Cultural Olympiad and all of the amazing arts events happening in and around Yorkshire and London. The Paralympics has been no different. From the Opening Ceremony to the various disability arts festivals happening in London, so far for me, the Paralympics and its part in the Cultural Olympiad has been far more understated yet immensely superior to the able-bodied games.

That Paralympic Opening Ceremony, simply by having Ian McKellen rather than Timothy Spall, beats the Olympic ceremony hands down. Don’t get me wrong, Danny Boyle did an amazing job of showcasing the Brit pop clichés and indie darlings in his usual hotchpotch, collaged style but having Macca dragged out one too many times with chuffing Hey Jude and THAT Emilie Sande with what… five appearances, it had just as many cons as it did pros. I mean Christ, does the world even know who Emile Sande even is.

Yet, as much as I enjoyed element of Boyle’s ceremony, I found Jenny Sealey and Bradley Hemmings’ production so much more inspiring. Ian McKellen’s voice and even his smile and amazement at the spectacle surrounding him as he forgot that he was being watched, the outstanding rendition of Ian Dury’s Spasticus Autisticus by the cast and musicians of Reasons to be Cheerful and Orbital. Ian Dury was someone I remember hearing growing up; New Boots and Panties was an album my dad had in his collection and one I rediscovered recently. Totoally unaware when I was younger that Dury was disabled as a result of a childhood bout of Polio; it’s unbelievable to think that his song Spasticus Autisticus was banned by the BBC. What an amazing and defiant statment that song is and to have it played in front of millions of viewers is wonderful.

“So place your hard-earned peanuts in my tin
And thank the Creator you’re not in the state I’m in
So long have I been languished on the shelf
I must give all proceedings to myself
I’m spasticus”

– Ian Dury / Chas Jankel, 1981

Seeing tens of thousands of people dance along to that is a real achievement and just the kind of one-up Channel 4 would get over the BBC.

Another high point for me was the monumental reproduction of Marc Quinn’s marble cast of a naked Alison Lapper Pregnant. Already a triumph when it sat on top of the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square, having this fifty foot replica of Alison, herself an artist born without arms and with truncated legs because of a congenital disorder, Phocomelia, easily beats the Damien Hirst work that was reproduced as the flooring of the Olympic Stadium; Boyle’s attempt at representing significant, contemporary British art.

Alison Lapper Pregnant by Marc Quinn.
© Anna Gowthorpe PA

It’s seems my facebook wall has been taken up with words like ‘inspiring’ and ‘awe’ this last week. It’s getting a bit boring. I really must learn a new vocabulary. The highlights for me so far have been watching Dave Weir’s 5000m gold win and Sarah Storey winning GB’s first gold of the games in the  C4-5 500m Cycling Time Trial. One of the most astonishing things is the amount of upper body strength the athletes have; specifically those missing limbs.

A surprise highlight throughout the games has been Channel 4’s brilliant coverage. I swear that I have learned more in watching just half an hour of their faultless programming than I have days of other network’s shows. Even their daily, late night comedy/sports/debate show, The Last Leg with Adam Hills has been a brilliant and wonderful surprise. A program able to take the piss out of itself, but is more than capable of knowing where to draw the line. Edgy, controversial, thought provoking and insightful in equal measure. I hope to see a lot more of the very likable and funny disabled presenters on my TV once the games are done with.

This week I have spent a couple of days on London’s Southbank at a couple of ‘disability arts festivals.’ The first was Liberty, a ten year anniversary special for the festival of disability and deaf arts. Taking place in multiple open air sites over three days, I only managed to see two shows but both were more than worth it. Over at the National Theatre’s Watch This Space venue, the first act up is Bill Shannon; from Nashville. He is an American dancer who was born with a degenerative hip condition and is known for performing on crutches. Known as The Crutch, he act is a unique fusion of break dancing, skate boarding and hip-hop.

Within two minutes you forget that this guy is even disabled, despite doing 360s while aloft on one crutch. He performs moves you would normally see done on a skateboard but does it without one, using just the crutches for balance. It comes over like he’s riding an invisible board.

Check out this shit-hot compilation of his moves throughout the years.

Once Bill left the stage, two little girls who up and dancing on the crutches… worth it, right?

Next up is the formidable Jez Colborne. My Barnsley readers will know him from Mind the Gap’s tourism intervention, the Immovable Block, which literally landed in the middle of Barnsley in May.  Jez performed a preview of his show Irresistible: The Call of the Sirens from the block then and here he does the same as a teaser for his main show the following week. I got chance to meet the wonderful Mind the Gap team again and even interview check about his influences and inspirations.

You can read that feature here: Alternative Barnsley – Jez Colborne Interview and Review

Now, when the Southbank Centre do a festival, they do it right (give or take the overpriced food market out back). This week there are two festivals running alongside each other. Over in the Jubilee Gardens there is the Priceless London Wonderground; a wonderful festival of vaudeville, cabaret and burlesque from the makers of the E4 Underbelly and throughout the rest of the Southbank Centre, the reason I am here, the Unlimited Festival. Unlimited has commissioned 29 truly ambitious projects and performers; exhibited both the inside and outside of the centre, it features exhibitions and works of art that explores different voices and experiences and performances of physical feats to rival even those of the athletes in the Olympic Park.

The exterior of the Hayward Gallery and the concourse that leads to the Queen Elizabeth Hall is totally transformed with a large Unlimited Festival. Everything Is Beautiful When You Don’t Look Down is a sculpture of two people scaling the building, made by the London-based arts collective Robots>>>>, who build large sculptures from recycled and reclaimed materials. This particular one was made predominantly from wood and steel used at Southbank Centre’s 2011 Festival of Britain, with help from children at the Oasis Children’s Venture, a safe play space for young people in the London Borough of Lambeth.

http://www.giantrobots.co.uk

Under the BaoBab may look like the next step up from Yarn Bombing but it is in fact sculpture made from stacks of fabric rings using material from around the globe. Created by Textile Design students from Chelsea College of Art and Design, the fabrics represent their communities of origin, so each ring tells a story. The Baobab tree is the oldest living specimen in Africa, the baobab tree has long been a symbol for community gatherings and mediation. This one is 15 metres tall and celebrates global creativity and diversity.

The room of the centre has been taken over by a two amazing landscapes, replacing that famous concrete facade. The first is a roof garden in collaboration with the Eden Project and the second, thousands of discarded or recycled white plastic bottles, creating an environment somewhat similar to a broken ice cap.

Inside the Royal Festival Hall’s foyers are a number of video installations and art exhibitions. The most affecting was one I personally connected with and that was Bobby Baker’s series Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me.

Partly reminding me of Frida Kahlo’s diaries and also the recently exhibited work of comedian Billy Connolly; Baker’s drawing show the progression of borderline personality disorder and vividly depicts some of the symptoms such as severe depression and self harm. Despite the graphic nature of the images, some of them also have a humorous and self-deprecating side to them. I saw many similarities in her work and the motifs used to my drawings from University that I produced while I suffered with serious bouts of depressiony.

The Unlimited Global Academy is a collaboration between artist Rachel Gadsden and the Bambanani Artist-activist Group and via paintings, drawings, videos, books and body mapping techniques, depicts experiences of having disabling conditions and fighting for life in the face of social taboos and prejudice against HIV. Visual references include Jean Michel Basquiat, Chris Ofili and once again, Frida Kahlo. Incorporating painting, photo collage and textiles, each piece is visceral, sometimes violent, but also beautiful. The work is full of aesthetic contradictions, but so is the message. Even in the UK, the stigma attached to HIV doesn’t quite balance with the laws in place to stop discrimination.

Underneath the Queen Elizabeth Hall is the Festival Village, which looks more like the Shark Pool den in Heartbreak High (remember that?). Behind the bar, pool tables and painted chain link fence is an exhibition by artist Maurice Orr, The Screaming Silence of the Wind. The work has been produced to be appreciated by the visually impared and well as those with normal eye-sight. As you enter the exhibition, you are invited to touch the canvases, which are not only large, beautifull painted coastal landscapes but also heavily textured and impasto. Surfaces have been built up using paint and location appropriate materials such as fish leather.

 

On Tuesday 4th I visit The Pilot Inn, in Greenwich. It is a historic pub which has stood in Greenwich for over 200 years and been witness to the amazing transformation of the area. During the Games it has changed its name to The Wheelchair Basketballer and is acting an official sponsor of the British Wheelchair Basketball team. It will be broadcasting the matches live and there will be a variety of promotions running, including an opportunity to buy and get signed copies of the book ‘Wheelchairs Can Jump’, to really learn about the sport via the wealth or informative displays and examples of the wheelchairs used in the games and of course sit down with players and chat. Players, coaches, game makers and spectator descend on this lovely pub all day and all night.

I had never seen so many wheelchair users in one pub at the same time. It was such a great environment. The only thing missing here was Paralympic or Basketball themed cocktails!

If you’re ever in Greenwich, maybe visiting the O2 Arena for a gig, I highly recommend a visit. Great beer, great food, great atmosphere and great staff. I enjoyed it so much, I went again the following day after I had a day out at the ExCeL watching the Paralympics.

 

Already being familiar with the check-in procedures, I felt no need to arrive ‘an hour before’ and still managed to get checked in without queuing in under fifteen minutes. I headed for one of the displays which details what games were playing in the five different arenas and when. I decided to go to watch Seated Volleyball.

There was a queue of around 800 people waiting to get in. Can you believe that it only took another twenty minutes to get in and seated. All good so far.

Sitting Volleyball

Men’s Quarter Final

Russian Federation Vs Brazil

 

SETS

1

2

3

4

5

RUS

3

18

25

25

19

15

BRA

2

25

15

15

25

8

About half of the arena is full when the game starts. The first round is truly dominated by Brazil, which in that first set, but it’s in this first round that I become familiar with the rules; three touches, blocks, spikes and the fact that each team is allowed one ‘minimal disability’ player on the team at all times. In both the second and third sets, Russians absolutely slay the Brazil team and it’s at this point that the arena is full to capacity and the Russian supporters become the most vocal, waving national flags with images of wild bears on them!

I have to mention the commentator, who is fantastic. He gives various players their own nick-names; such as ‘the Duke’ Wellington on the Brazil team. He also doesn’t mind mocking those players who make cock-ups with their over-long serves. Russia’s Alexander Savichev really is a beast with those serves but the amounts of power put into every hit leads to a number of fouls and double-taps in the fourth set and for a while it looks like Brazil could clinch it as they lead that fourth set, taking the game to the deciding fith set. But in the shorter, deciding round it is Russia that makes those 15 points first, and even with the outstanding players on the Brazil side such as Wellington and Renato, they just couldn’t pull it back.

London2012 – Official Results of Men’s Quarter Final Sitting Volleyball

After that game I went out for a wonder round while I ate my packed lunch and headed off to the Boccia arena. For those that don’t know; Boccia is a Paralympic only sport and is target driven, in the same way as Green Bowling or Curling is. So I and about a hundred others queued until we were eventually allowed in. Tickets were checked, directions given and everyone was seated, then guess what? There was a tanoy announcement saying that the next match wouldn’t start for another couple of hours!! Once is bad enough but it happened a second time over in the Table Tennis Arena too. The arena had six small playing areas, with only one match still in play; or at least all two minutes of it. The woman sat next to me was proper effing and blinding.

I was much luckier when I got to the fencing.

Wheelchair Fencing

Men’s Individual Epee – Category A

Quarter Final 4

15 Noble. R – France Vs China – Duan. Y 11

The arena is swamped with French supports and although there is another four other matches happening in this arena, one of which also has a French player, it is Romain Noble, the French pretty boy of fencing that they are here to see. Rules? Both athletes compete in wheelchairs that are fixed into a frame fastened to the floor. This gives them freedom of movement in their upper bodies, while keeping them fixed in their chairs. The distance between the two fencers is determined by the athlete with the shorter arm reach. Done!

Noble looks uncannily like Phillip Phillip’s (American Idol winner) and after a few stops and starts, courtesy of Duan who somehow manages to bend the tip of his epee blade, thrashes his opponent in twenty-four minutes. Noble is cool and collected and smiles for his supporters. It’s almost like he’s playing to a home crowd. I was really pleased that Noble went on to claim a silver in the final that evening.

London 2012 – Official Results Wheelchair Fencing, Men’s Individual Epee – Category A, Quarter Final 4

Wheelchair Fencing

Men’s Individual Epee – Category B

Round 16

6 Mainville – Canada Vs Brazil – Silva Gui 15

So, I thought I’d stick around and catch another match. As the players get strapped in, it’s quite obvious that this time round there are no specific supporters here but my experience in these games tells me that when you have to pick a side to support, both Brazil and Canada are popular choices. I opt for Canada. Shame then that Pierre Mainville barely shifts in the points table over the ten minutes of play and by mid-round, it is clear that Jovane Silva Guissone is in for the win. Not as exciting at the previous match, but that is part down to the atmosphere. Still though, amazing and exciting to watch.

London 2012 – Official Results Wheelchair Fencing, Men’s Individual Eppe – Category B, Round 16

 

And that was it really. I called it a day at four because I wanted to fit in some final drinks with friends before I headed back off to Barnsley the next day.

And as I write this, I’m sat watching The Last Leg on Channel 4 again. It has to be one of the funniest and most honest programs on TV in ages. it doesn’t treat its viewers like they are stupid , which is what the whole of ITV2 does and it says the things that everyone is thinking and isn’t scared to. You can learn a lot from watching it and I certainly hope all of the disabled presenters that I have been watching on TV every day get new jobs on prime time because they have all been bloody mint and as I finish typing this, I’ve just watched Johnny Peacock snatch that gold with ease and I was shaking with utter excitement. It was amazing. It’s all been amazing.

I’m turned. I am a fan of sport – or at least paralympic sports. Sports that are solely about people and talent, rather money and egos. I’ll miss these Games once it has finished.

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