COMMENT: The Paralympics closing ceremony: Petrol, flames and a faint whiff of tokenism


There was colour, there was smoke, the smell of petrol wafting towards the media seats, there were many, many flames, and there was a long, crowd-pleasing set from the band Coldplay.

In many ways, last night’s Paralympics closing ceremony was a glorious, loud and riotous way to round off the greatest summer of sport – both from our Paralympians and their second-class Olympic cousins – this country has ever seen.

But what the ceremony was not was a great celebration of either the Paralympic athletes who had lit up the previous 11 days with their supreme skill, dedication and passion. Neither was it any kind of celebration of disability arts, with just token nods to disabled performers.

There was also, for me, slightly too much emphasis on disabled and non-disabled service personnel, with the charity Help for Heroes playing a major role. London 2012 was a sporting festival, not a military parade.

The show was dominated by Coldplay, who played more than a dozen songs, and performances by the American music stars Rihanna and Jay Z.

There were brief moments at which disabled artists were allowed to peep their heads above the Paralympic parapet – Mat Fraser guesting on drums for a Coldplay track, fleeting appearances from the British Paraorchestra (composed of 17 disabled musicians) as they accompanied Coldplay and performed the Paralympic anthem, the almost inevitable performance by the integrated dance company CanDoCo, and the national anthem sung by the Chickenshed graduate Lissa Hermans.

There were also the disabled model and singer-songwriter Viktoria Modesta, appearing as the Snow Queen, and amputee Lyndsay Adams, performing with renowned aerialist Laszlo Simet.

But the views of the directors and producers about who were the real stars of the show was made clear at the end of the media guide: the “principal performers” were described as Coldplay, Jay Z and Rihanna, with not a single disabled person – as far as I am aware – among them.

And among the ceremony’s seven-strong artistic team, none of them appears to describe themselves as a disabled person either. A contrast, then, to the heart-dropping, jaw-stopping opening ceremony, in which disabled people and empowering images of disability had played such a central role, and which had boasted two artistic co-directors, Jenny Sealey and Bradley Hemmings.

And, yet again, it seems that the volunteer cast of 1,336 were largely – and I have yet to confirm this from LOCOG – non-disabled people. During the opening ceremony, only two per cent of the volunteer performers had been disabled people, a shamefully low proportion.

>From the start, the set-up of the stadium seemed more akin to a school speech day, with the Paralympians lined up around the running track in their wheelchairs and on fold-up seats, and only a handful of them allowed to re-enter the limelight.

There were the country’s flag-bearers – including Sarah Storey and David Weir for Britain – given a few moments of muted glory, Ellie Simmonds and Jonnie Peacock extinguishing the cauldron, and awards for sporting excellence and “exemplifying the spirit of the games” presented to Ireland’s Michael McKillop and Kenya’s Mary Zakayo, both athletes.

But there was no real chance for the crowd to salute the medal-winners, and the congratulations during the ceremony seemed to be aimed mostly at the volunteer “games makers” – who, from my experience, were consistently cheery and helpful, but often ill-informed – rather than the athletes.

I may be criticised for saying this, but when you need important and accurate information, you are more likely to get that from someone who has had professional training, and is paid a fair wage.

And even when volunteer performers paraded the countries’ flags out of the stadium, it seemed that most of them – if not all – were non-disabled people. From what I could see, there was not a single wheelchair-user, personal assistant, or cane-user in sight. At a Paralympics closing ceremony? Really?

And, as if it was a chastening reminder for the organisers, the biggest cheers of the evening were, of course, reserved for three Paralympians – three disabled Paralympians – Ellie Simmonds, David Weir and Oscar Pistorius.

10 September 2012

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