I had my first lie-in in two and a half weeks today. It felt strange. It does however mean that I can finally update you guys on the amazingness that I have been blessed to experience as a Games Maker at the Paralympics.
It all began seven years ago as I watched the announcement of the host city of the 2012 Olympic Games. My first thought went back to the amazing atmosphere that I vaguely remembered from Euro ‘96 – crowds and banners lining the approach to Wembley stadium, within an electric atmosphere that had gripped the nation. And that was only one sport. What would the greatest show on earth have in store? Whatever it was, I wanted to be a part of it.
In the approach to London 2012, I was in my final years of university in East London. Every morning, I would get the train out of Liverpool Street into the depths of Essex. Every day I would pass the hotly debated Stratford site. Every day, waiting, wondering, what would become of it? On those cold dark winter mornings as I sapped the heat from my coffee cup I would look forward to the image of the sun rising over the Olympic stadium, a scene that never failed to draw a smile on my face. As the year went on, I watched the construction of the Olympic stadium step by step. I watched the piles of rubble slowly fade away as the Olympic park began to take shape.
Whilst the negativity surrounding the games continued to escalate, deep down I knew that, when the time came, all the critics would be silenced by the power and beauty that underlies the Olympic and Paralympic movement; the human spirit.
Having thought about volunteering for a while, when the time actually came to apply, I found myself reluctant to do so. I realised that by the time London 2012 came around, I’d be working and began to doubt whether or not I could commit to this. Then, with only hours to go before the deadline for applications I decided to bite the bullet. By this point, I had missed the deadline for the medical team, so I ‘settled’ (oh the irony!) for Event Services. With almost a quarter of a million applications for only 70,000 positions, we were warned about the lengthy process that lay ahead, so I clicked submit, and then carried on with getting through uni. Exams came and went. Then came flying off on my elective, and in all honesty, with the upheaval of life that was graduating and starting work, I may well have forgotten about the whole thing…until I received an invitation to a selection event at the Excel in London.
On a beautiful September afternoon I headed down to the docklands. I remember walking up to the entrance lined with London 2012 banners feeling slightly overwhelmed. The Olympics were just around the corner.
The reflection of the sunshine glittered as the wash lapped up the sides of the riverbank. As if the day needed to be any more picturesque, there was a junior rowing championships just around the corner, so the whole place was littered with boats and excited young athletes. I was falling in love with the whole thing all over again.
I headed into the centre and made my way through the ID checks and signing in process. Before our individual interviews, we had the chance to wander around an exhibition about London 1948 being the origin of the volunteer role at the games, about Stoke-Mandeville being the home of the Paralympics and about the amazing things that we could expect at the London 2012 games. The excitement was building. We continued to mingle with the staff, all of whom had experience volunteering at previous summer and winter games, every one of them with an amazing story to tell of their experience, the most amazing part being the fact that they were still associated with the Olympic movement. I spoke to people from both Australia and Canada, who had volunteered at their home games, and were bitten by the bug. If I wasn’t already pumped for this interview, I definitely was now!
I’ve never been great at selling myself when I need to. Fortunately, this interview was different. When it came to talking about two things I love- sport and people, I couldn’t stop talking. It felt great to finally let out all the excitement that had been building for so many years. At the end of the interview, I was asked whether I wanted to be considered for the Olympics, Paralympics or both. Unfortunately, I knew I couldn’t commit to both so I had to choose. How to choose?!? I sat deliberating for what felt like hours. My interviewer could see me struggling. She had done both herself in Sydney and loved every minute of each- which wasn’t really helpful! For some reason though, whilst I had never really had anything to do with the Paralympics, I have always believed in the healing power of sport. So I went for it.
My oh my, am I glad I went for it.
Up until that day I hadn’t really had much exposure to the Paralympics. In fact all I knew was one or two scenes from a movie. ‘Remember the Titans’ ends in a dedication to Gerry Bertier, a high-school football star whose career is cut short in a horrible car accident that left him paralysed. With the aid of his coach however, he managed to turn this negative into a positive, winning multiple gold medals in wheelchair athletics.
Sadly however, not everybody is lucky to have such support around them in times of hardship. In the weeks before the Paralympics, the BBC broadcast a drama called ‘The Best of Men’, a fantastic watch that prepared me for the emotional rollercoaster that lay ahead.
The Paralympic movement has its roots firmly planted in Stoke-Mandeville hospital. Dr Ludwig Guttman was a German neurologist who had to flee his native land as Nazi rule took over Germany. He eventually finds himself working at the spinal unit Stoke-Mandeville, where he finds a ward full of young men that the world, and medical profession, had basically given up on. Dr Guttman however, will do no such thing. He firmly believes that sport can be a powerful rehabilitative tool and sets about using it to revolutionise treatment at the centre. As with most revolutionaries, he came under a lot of criticism from both patients and colleagues. Patients indoctrinated by a society that told them they weren’t worthy of love and care, or a worthy existence for that matter. Colleagues pre-occupied with more ‘deserving’ of patients. He persisted nonetheless. I like to think that part of Dr Guttman’s conviction came from his own story. Here we had an internationally renowned specialist being held back, forced to flee to a strange land, to do a job that, on the surface, was far below his standing. Living the life of the underdog, must have in some way helped Dr Guttman empathise with his patients. I find that it is often times of hardship that bring out the best in humanity.
With the 1948 London Olympics fast approaching, Dr Guttman dreamt of a parallel Olympics, a games where people would look beyond his patients’ injuries and see the person that lived on. On the opening day of the 1948 Olympics, Dr Guttman made his dream a reality, hosting 16 athletes at The Stoke-Mandeville games. Sixty-four years later, here we are, back in the UK, celebrating 4,200 Paralympians, competing at the highest level possible, liberated through sport.
Watching this drama left me beyond inspired, so grateful for the privilege that was waiting for me in Stratford.
You can read more about ‘The Best of Men’ and Dr Guttman here.