Monday, September 03, 2012

The Olympics, The Paralympics and My Body Image

I didn't expect the Olympics to have anything to do with me.  I was certainly fed up of hearing about it, long before it started.  Every BBC London News bulletin I've seen for the last eighteen months has mention the Olympics in some tenuous context or other;
"A business has laid off a thousand workers, leading to a bump in the city's unemployment figures and fears that none of those thousand people will be able to afford Olympic tickets."  
"A gas leak in the city has lead to homes being evacuated and concerns that the smell might not have quite gone away in time for London 2012."
"A rising tide of gang violence has claimed its latest victim.  The man was shot dead as he waited for a bus and will now completely miss the London Olympics."
I was, however, equally tired of hearing people complain about the Olympics.  Okay, so maybe the timing was bad, given what's happened to the economy, but we could hardly back out once London got the games.  And there have been genuine scandals; the Dow Chemical's sponsorship deal, the problems of security staff, the empty seats, memorabilia made with slave labour and the almost limitless remit of the "brand police".  But there were plenty of people moaning about just because they don't like sport.  I'm generally not keen on sport, but to complain about the Olympics on the grounds that sport is dull is no better people objecting to government funding to the arts because they don't like made-up things.

I didn't expect to watch any of the Olympics, but the family had to see the opening ceremony.  It was directed by Danny Boyle, after all.  He usually does films, made-up things - far more up my street than people running about everywhere (although he has known to open and close films with people running about).  Even so, I expected to cringe and yawn throughout.  I didn't.  The Opening Ceremony was flawed, as it had to be.  We spent the next few days discussing the omissions, especially from the run-through of British music of the last forty years (where was Brit Pop and Trip Hop? Where was the soundtrack to my youth?).  However, the show reminded me of day-long train journeys I used to take, where you'd see some of the true beauty of the countryside but always end up in Didcot Parkway at some point. Nobody has any idea where Didcot Parkway is and there's nothing to see from the station - you hear of people wandering from the platform never to be seen again - but you sometimes have to stop there in order to get from one significant place to another.  The Opening Ceremony visited Didcot Parkway, but sometimes you have to in order to cross this great nation of ours.

So the next day, Stephen and his folks were watching the men's cycling, which was happening around the landmarks of Surrey.  It was very dull and the commentators didn't seem to recover from the shock of Team GB falling behind.  I duly dozed off.  The next day, Stephen and his folks were watching the women's cycling.  Wow. That was terrific! I learnt all sorts about the aerodynamics of long distance cycling, the necessity for teamwork between members of opposing teams, and after the last few miles into the centre of London with the crowds cheering on, the rain beating down (it was sunny in Wales) and a silver medal for our lass Lizzie Armistead, well!  I spent the rest of the day sleeping off the excitement.

And so the Olympics proceeded and I wound up watching a lot of it. Charlie Brooker describes what I imagine happened to a lot of us.  My personal and very unexpected highlight was the women's boxing - I began watching it grudgingly and between my fingers and ended jumping up and down and doing this sort of thing in English, but for Nicola Adams as well as the legendary Katie Taylor.  I mean, wow.  The men's boxing wasn't nearly so good; they're generally heavier, not so fast and graceful and look like they can seriously hurt each other.  They certainly don't look like they can do this.  And sometimes they do.

As well as learning a lot and enjoying unexpected things, the Olympics had a surprisingly positive effect on my body image. It's rare to see such a diversity of bodies - especially female bodies - on the television in any given week, and all of those bodies are reasonably healthy, some very healthy (I comment on health because we're often sold this idea that healthy is one size and shape). There were skinny women, muscly women, women who were well-padded, women with and without sizable bosoms, short women and very tall women. There were women who looked a little bit like me.

There was also much more of an age range than I expected.  I have no issues about my age, but I imagined that at thirty one, I would be older than almost everyone competing. It was heartening to see a thirty-nine year old performing a complex tangle of sommersaults several metres above a trampoline and no-one comment that she was getting a bit old for bouncing about like that). It was also extremely obvious that someone who excelled at one thing would probably be no good at another however hard they tried.  Sprinters are not built for weight-lifting, cyclists are not built for Tai Kwondo and so on; even the most elite bodies on the planet have very clear and obvious physical limitations.

All this made me feel good about my body.  I can't sprint, lift weights, cycle or do Tai Kwondo (although I can do a brief physical impression of how a crow moves on the ground, which strikes me as half the battle). But hey, isn't it great to have a body?  And my body is okay, because it's a little bit like these other fantastic bodies that can do really cool things.  Even my body can do a few cool things.  I was reminded of a rather evangelical doctor who once compared my attempts to build up my strength only to be a foiled by a fresh infection or other random event, to an athlete who gave it her all but kept getting bronze.  I gave a somewhat bitter laugh at the time, but watching the Olympics, I thought, I do know about working hard with my body, I know about the care and discipline that requires and the misery of set-backs.  It's just a matter of scale really.  And thus, in a way, the Olympics did have a little something to do with me.

Last week was a rough one and I wasn't well enough to watch the Paralympic Opening Ceremony on Wednesday.  Even if I'd stayed awake long enough, I wasn't going to cope with even a fraction of the unending rhythm and chaotic spectacle of the Olympic Opening and Closing Ceremonies.  But I had also watched the local London news earlier that evening, and in that half hour, I'd had my fill of hearing that anything is possible, that anyone, no matter what their impairment, can do anything.  At one point, a piece on a scheme to train disabled pilots (who were flying over the stadium during the ceremony) concluded, “No matter what a person's disability, even the sky is not the limit.” and my brain ran through the list of fairly minor impairments that would bar someone from pilot training – some degrees of colour-blindness can still keep you grounded and I've never met anyone who considered themselves disabled because they were colour-blind.

A lot has been written about the inspiration porn aspect of the Paralympic coverage, and this ridiculous idea that the fact a double amputee can play sit-down volley ball at an international level is proof that anyone can do anything if they really try. (I did laugh when I first saw sit-down volley ball. Like many disabled people, I have mastered many stand-up activities from a sitting or lying position, but I never imagined it could be taken to such lengths.)

There's also been a lot of protest over Atos (both in the press and in person), the henchmen of warped government tests for disability benefit, being a major sponsor of a games in which many benefit claimants compete, leading the Daily Mash to report that disability benefits are to be replaced by medals.

But I wanted to add something about body image.  There are Paralympians who also have bodies that look a bit like mine, but naturally, they work a lot like those of the Olympians.  On a spectrum of physical ability, with your common or garden Olympians at one end, many if not most Paralympians are just a notch down from there – Oscar Pistorius, to give an obvious example, runs beside with the best bipedal athletes in the world.  Paralympians are still disabled*, because they have the same kind of problems I have getting around on public transport, or accessing literature, but their fitness, strength and the cool things they can do with their bodies are completely beyond most of us. They are at the other end of the spectrum from mine.

This isn't a problem - of course not.  I'm not upset by people who have skills, aptitude and function abilities I do not (jealous, maybe).  Nor am I upset by people sympathising with other kinds of injuries and impairments - I certainly do, although I also know there are limits to how much sympathy and individual is likely to find bearable.  But when I hear that people with these bodies are massively disadvantaged, that their lives are tragic because of their bodies' limitations, well, what does that say about me and my body? Is it so very awful to inhabit?  When I saw Olympic athletes with bodies a bit like mine, their deviance from the most common images of women's bodies we see around us were not even mentioned, let alone repeatedly focused upon.

That all elite athletes are remarkable and admirable, there's no doubt; anyone who gets to the top of the thing they do deserves our praise (well, you know, with some obvious exceptions like politics or organised crime).  But it is ironic that the Paralympic coverage should threaten to take back a positive message the Olympic Games gave me about my body.

* Of course, some Olympians are also disabled.  The Paralympic games isn't for disabled sportspeople, but for sportspeople with certain highly-policed physical impairments.  There were probably all manner of physical, cognitive and mental health conditions among the Olympian athletes, just as there were people who had faced all manner of major social, political, financial and psychological challenges, as well as the physical stuff, among the athletes attending either games.  Meanwhile, some athletes from either games will have faced massive obstacles of discrimination, political disapproval, financial hardship and personal tragedy which make their impairments pale in comparison.

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