Dr. Ludwig Guttmann worked in a hospital with British WW2 veterans with spinal chord injuries. He quickly realized that some of the best physical therapy for their healing, both physically and mentally, was sport. In 1948 he organized the International Wheelchair Games. By 1960, no longer open solely to war veterans, the games were dubbed the Paralympics, held in Rome, with 400 athletes competing from 23 countries. Though the games were held for wheelchair-bound athletes, the “para” in Paralympics is not a references to paralysis, though that’s a common misconception. It was compound word formed to indicate that these games would run parallel to the Olympic games, and every year since 1960 they have taken place in the same year. In 1976, athletes with different disabilities were included for the first time. Able bodies all look the same, but disabled bodies can be disabled in so many different ways. The Paralympics can be broken down into 10 eligible impairment types: impaired muscle power (such as paraplegia), impaired passive range of movement (impairment of a joint), limb deficiency (amputation), leg length difference, short stature, hypertonia (reduced ability for a muscle to stretch), ataxia (lack of coordination), athetosis (involuntary movement), vision impairment, and intellectual impairment (the Special Olympics are also for children and adults with intellectual impairments, but it’s for building community and enriching people’s lives through sport no matter their skill level; the Paralympics are for world-class athletes). For many years now, the Paralympics have taken place in the same host city as the Olympics, almost immediately following them, and using the same facilities.
This documentary covers two major wings of the Paralympic experience:
- We hear from members of the International Paralympic Committee – Xavier Gonzalez, Philip Craven, Andrew Parsons talk about issues that have threatened the games such as subpar conditions in Atlanta, poor attendance and coverage in Athens, Russia’s refusal to host them at all in 1980 because they “had no disabled people” in Russia, and most recently, Rio’s Olympic committee running out of money before the games and stealing from the Paralympic pot to cover the Olympic expenses.
- We hear from the athletes themselves: Jonnie Peacock, the 100m runner who beat Oscar Pistorius; Bebe Vio, a beautiful young woman with no limbs whatsoever who still managed to win gold in wheelchair fencing; Jean-Baptiste Alaize, who survived a genocide to compete in the long jump despite losing a limb to a machete; Ryley Batt, who must be at least a little crazy to ram himself around the brutal court of wheel chair rugby; and many more besides. Everyone has an incredible story, but the athletes seem to appreciate that when they are competing, the sport becomes the story rather than the origins of their disability. The games are not about disability, but about people who have super abilities despite any impairments their bodies may have.
I was fascinated to hear more about the incredible people who work so hard to make these games happen and to learn not just how much they mean to the people who train so hard to compete into them, but to the rest of us, who have our notions of disability challenged when we see people competing at the top of their game. At the top of anyone’s game, frankly speaking.
Prince Harry, or the Duke of Sussex rather, at least at the time of filming, chimes in as the founder of the Invictus Games, which ironically have gone back to Dr. Guttmann’s original concept, giving wounded and sick veterans the opportunity to rehabilitate with the power of sport. We will likely be seeing more of him and wife Meghan since they’ve decamped from the palace to become Hollywood producers, signing an exclusive multi-year deal with Netflix to produce whatever kind of inspirational content they deem fit, be it documentaries, docu-series, feature films, scripted shows or children’s programming – and quite possibly all.
While Harry adds a little something, he’s probably the least compelling subject, despite his title or notoriety. These athletes are more than enough reason to tune into Rising Phoenix, which is inspiring without even trying to be.