COMMENT: Drama, ringing ears and zig-zagging emotions in the Olympic Stadium


It was an evening when moments of pure sporting theatre followed one after another in rapid succession. Barely had one British Paralympian thrilled the 80,000 crowd than another was waiting to take the baton.

There was the young rising star of the ParalympicsGB track squad, Hannah Cockroft, with her second sensational sprint wheelchair gold, this time winning the T34 200 metres by more than two seconds.

In fact Cockroft was the only British athlete of the evening who would edge towards controversy when she spoke later of her pride at representing Britain, and added: “I was quite upset to see a lot of the athletes to be seen not singing [during their medal ceremonies]in the Olympics. Maybe Paralympians are more patriotic. Maybe we just sing better.”

Then there was the 19-year-old Ola Abidogun in the T46 100 metres. Abidogun was impressively calm and measured after his bronze medal-winning run, which he described as “average”. He is still young, he said, he can improve.

He also had a slightly different take on the usual talk of “inspiring” other disabled people to take up sport. He would, he said, “like [to inspire disabled]people to beat me, rather than be like me”.

And what did he learn from the race? “I think I learned not to give up when in a bad position. Where you are doesn’t mean anything. It’s where you finish.”

This was all before David Weir appeared on the track to attempt to defy his brutal track schedule and add a third gold of the games, this time in the T54 800 metres.

He spoke afterwards of how his greatest challenge had not been the physical exertion of competing in the 5,000 metres, 1,500 metres and 800 metres in quick succession (to be followed by the marathon on Sunday), but in coping with his constant zig-zagging emotions.

“You can’t train for these emotions going up and down,” he said. “I have done all the [training]mileage but you can’t do the emotions. You can’t match it. There is no way you can match it in training.”

I asked him what it was about him as a person that made him such an exceptional athlete. “Maybe because I am from a council estate, my upbringing, very good parents,” he said. “They didn’t treat me any different, treated me like my three brothers.”

But for once, Weir’s performance was not the highlight of the evening for British spectators. That came with probably the most eagerly-awaited moment of the Paralympics, when GB’s teenage world record-holder Jonnie Peacock took on the sprinting might of the USA in the form of Jerome Singleton and Blake Leeper in the T44 100 metres. If that was not enough, there was also the defending champion, the great Oscar Pistorius.

Pistorius drew a huge cheer from the crowd, moments after Brazilian Alan Fonteles Cardoso Oliveira – who had controversially beaten him in the 200 metres in the biggest shock of the games so far – was seen glancing across at the South African as he himself had been introduced. Pistorius ignored him.

When the camera moved to Peacock, the British sprinter broke into a huge grin, and somehow you knew he was going to win.

As the seconds counted down to the start, the crowd began to chant “Peacock, Peacock”. Then there was the usual call for silence, camera flashes across the stadium, and then – almost unbearably – a false start, as Oliveira overbalanced.

Again the stadium was filled with the chants of “Peacock, Peacock”. The crowd had come to see a new star crowned and were not about to be disappointed.

It was a night where the volume of the crowd could only be measured by how long your ears continued to ring after the roar had subsided. With Weir’s majestic victory, after edging ahead of the Chinese racer Lixin Zhang (later to be disqualified) in the closing stages, the ear-ringing continued for at least 15 minutes.

But for the T44 100 metres, the ears were still buzzing the next morning. Peacock led from the start and smashed the opposition, and posted a new Paralympic record of 10.90 seconds.

There was a hug for Peacock from Pistorius, who failed to even win a medal but was gracious in defeat – more so than after his far more surprising loss earlier in the week. And silver went to a third American, Richard Browne, with bronze to Pistorius’s friend and South African team-mate Arnu Fourie.

But despite all the superstar performances, in some cases moments that will define these athletes’ lives for years to come, it was, strangely, 16-year-old Olivia Breen, from Hampshire, who brought a note of realism to the evening after coming eighth in the T38 200 metres.

Next week, she said, it would be back to school and the routine of the “normal” life of a teenager.

Hannah Cockroft, almost as young at just 20 and enjoying the experience of London 2012 just as much as her younger colleague, said later: “I do not want this to end.”

Their comments were a reminder that these games and their wonderful moments of sporting drama will soon be over.

But they were also a reminder that there will be no spectators cheering on hundreds of thousands of disabled people when they come face-to-face with the cuts and reforms that lie in store for them in the coming months.

7 September 2012


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