It's time to give Paralympians their due
I have covered 14 Summer and Winter Olympics.
Regrettably, I never have covered a Paralympics.
Now, thanks to both NBC and Universal Sports, I am even more aware of what I have missed.
You will be too if you watch Sunday afternoon’s NBC documentary on the 2008 Paralympic Games (11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. PT), along with the 28 hours of Paralympic coverage on Universal Sports from 4 to 8 p.m. Monday through next Sunday (Nov. 16).
I have seen the NBC film, which, thankfully, avoids the trap of concentrating only on the inspirational side of these leading disabled athletes.
Paralympians want to be seen first as athletes, with as much dedication to their sport and as compelling an urge to win as able-bodied athletes. That comes through on the NBC show when U.S. wheelchair basketball athlete Matt Scott says he doesn’t care about touring the sights of China or about how nice the Olympic Village is because, "I want a gold medal, and I want it bad."
(And wait until you see how Chinese high jumper Hou Bin, a three-time Paralympic gold medalist, lights the caldron at the opening ceremony. It is every bit as dramatic as the high-wire act 1984 Chinese Olympic champion Li Ning performed at the Olympic opening ceremony.)
I wish NBC had avoided the cloying background music that gives the production an overall feeling of touchy-feely rather than sports. Some of the early segments do focus more on the disability than the athletes’ achievements. And there is no attempt at explaining the numbering of events, a complicated system that has caused controversy because critics within the Paralympic movement feel there are too many categories and too many medals.
But the emphasis changes as the 90 minutes progress. By the end, you find yourself eagerly anticipating the race or game in which the athletes profiled are competing.
You likely will cry when you watch some of the segments, but not merely because it is moving to see these Paralympians overcome adversity. You will cry because you share their joy at having hard work and athletic ability result in Paralympic medals or, in the case of the
men’s basketball team, because you share their disappointment in falling short of its goal.
I never have covered any of this, for reasons that will, undoubtedly, sound like excuses.
One is that few media outlets can commit the enormous financial resources to do both sets of Games, especially since the Paralympics come while college and pro football are in full swing, and baseball’s pennant races are near their climax.
Another is fatigue – both the physical fatigue of working 18-hour days at the Olympics, and mental fatigue, the feeling that everyone – fans, editors, journalists -- is "Olympics-ed out" after nearly a month of focus on the Summer or Winter Games.
I know the logistical reasons for having the Paralympics follow the Olympics at the same sites. But I always have wished they could take place at another time (perhaps the year before the Olympics), when they would be more than an afterthought.
I also know this: What I saw on NBC makes it abundantly clear that the Paralympics are too good to miss.
-- Philip Hersh
Photo: Athletes parade during the closing ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games at the Bird's Nest on Sept. 17. Credit: Diego Azubel / EPA