My main purpose of coming to Rio was to see the Olympics, and I’d achieved that aim. So back in the city following a mini-tour of West and Central Brasil, the Paralympics had just started, so I thought I’d get a piece of that action too.
Many international media voices had criticised Brazil for not selling out stadiums for the events, thus demotivating the athletes, yet given they hadn’t even managed to do so for the Olympics themselves it wasn’t really a surprise. To be fair, the prices were dramatically lowered, prices starting at 10 Reais or approximately 3 USD, but even so, most of the sports taking part during the week were played out to half-empty arenas as the tourists had returned to their countries and the majority of Brazilians back to work. An effort was made to give out tickets in local schools for free and perhaps even more could have been given out.
In my view, the main attraction of any Olympics or Paralympics is athletics; at least that is what comes to mind when I think of them. Seeing as prices were ridiculous for watching the likes of Usain Bolt in the Olympic Stadium, I figured the next best thing would be to watch the Paralympics athletics and get to know the remodelled Engenhão stadium, usually the home of Botafogo Football Club, but here rented for the Olympics.
Getting to the stadium was simple and cost 16 Reais (5 USD) there and back. We took the metro from Copacabana to Maracanã, and from there took a train a few stops to Engenhão station, formerly named after the ex-president of FIFA, João Havelange, recently passed away and later discovered to have been involved in some corruption scandals. One could alternatively change at Central do Brasil, but given it is swarming with beggars and pickpockets we opted against this. On getting off the train, it was just a case of following the crowds and big yellow fingers to get in the stadium, and there was no real delay in queuing.
I paid 20 Reais for the morning/afternoon session, while the evening session cost 50 Reais. These prices were relevant to what were considered to be the cheapest seats in the house, but in reality, once inside the stadium, you could sit where you wanted, therefore those who paid for more expensive tickets did so unnecessarily. I’d never been to the stadium, even for football, and it was bigger than I’d imagined, and in good nick. We checked out the various tiers to see which was the best spot and decided to sit near the bottom/front as most people were congregated there and there would be more atmosphere generated in this area.
A whole range of sports went on throughout, both on the track and in the field, and often three or four occurred at the same time. This is obviously for practical reasons, but it often means you miss out on the throwing and jumping events because you’re more focused on the runners. That said, depending on where you were sat in the stadium, views of certain throwing and jumping events were obscured by netting or at angle difficult to view. However, the big screens afforded you a better angle from which to see the above, though they seemed to give priority to the medal ceremonies.
In terms of track, there were a range of distances run, from 100m to 1500m, some of them being relays. Amongst the athletes were the visually impaired, all of whom wore blindfolds and ran with trainers alongside them, the wheelchair-bound, paraplegics and a group of runners which seemed physically fine, hough I later discovered they had mental illnesses. I have to say that it was rather heart-warming and on the verge of tear-jerking, due to a combination of the sheer effort and determination being showed by the athletes, the thought of what difficulties they must have overcome, and the amazing support and encouragement shown to them by the crowd, who gave special applause not only to Brazilian athletes, but also sportingly to those who lagged behind.
During the breaks on the track, I managed to watch some of the throwing, which was impressive, though I felt that the US athlete who won the javelin wasn’t quite as physically impaired as his competitors, and he won by rather a distance, battering the world record in the process. Then again, I suppose it’s difficult to categorise Paralympic athletes and judge how impaired they are and it must be a major headache for the organisers. I saw a throwing event, the club throw, which substitutes the hammer throw from the Olympics and involves throwing a wooden weight from a wheelchair, though the distances for this are measured and adapted according to the athlete’s perceived level of disability. Again, difficult to judge.
As for jumping, it happened to be my highlight of the day, and underlined to me what kind of challenges the athletes have to supersede. The women’s long jump was being contested by blind athletes, again with blindfolds, and it must take real courage and lots of training to throw themselves into the unknown. So difficult was it proving, that at times they ran outside of the lane, pulled out at the last minute or even tripped. As it happened, the last jump was from a Brazilian athlete sitting in third place. In dramatic fashion the final jump of the session provided the winning distance as she secured gold by a mere few inches from her rivals. The crowd roared in delight, but she was the most excited of all, bouncing around like a baby lamb.
The men’s high jump for athletes missing all or parts of their arms was also interesting and turned out to be the last event of the second session, so had the full attention of the crowd. The way they picked up momentum and maintained their balance was great to watch. Many of them broke their personal bests and really tried to get the crowd involved. However, much to everyone’s surprise, the eventual winner only made his first jump when there were only four competitors remaining, a height which he cleared easily and which knocked the others out. He was left on his own for the next few jumps, and in the process broke the Paralympic record, but didn’t manage to clear the bar for the world record. From what I could see he held a great advantage over the other competitors and he was probably closer to the standard of Olympic athletes than fellow Paralympians were to him. It made we wonder whether he himself felt it was a hollow victory.
With that, and it was time to leave. It had been a worthwhile and had opened my eyes in more way than one. I have to give total respect to the athletes that take part, as what they have to overcome is nothing compared to the problems and challenges my wooden-leggedness causes me in my dance classes. If anything, seeing them in action emphasised the general need in life to confront difficult situations and simply get over problems.
On the other hand, there are still some grey areas regrading classification of athletes and given that the Paralympics is not an ‘open field’ like the Olympics, it will always be a difficult thing to manage. Saying what the limits of certain people are is difficult, and I wonder what means more to the athlete: to win gold amongst a field they defeat easily, or give absolutely everything they’ve got and fall short of the medals. In summary, I suppose it’s all about personal achievement, each to their own etcetera, and the Paralympians, much as the Olympians, deserve the plaudits for being the best at what they do, however well they do it.