10 Reasons Why The London Paralympics Are The Greatest Show Most Americans Will Never See

Two British broadcasters fought to win the TV rights to the Paralympics. Channel 4 beat the BBC and has seen the Paralympics bring in its biggest audience in a decade. Crowds are gathering around giant screens in Trafalgar Square and Tower Bridge. Fleet Street’s feisty dozen dailies are trying to outdo each other with full front-page photos and 16-page daily sections. But in North America, coverage lags behind West Africa. Here’s why you should check out the Games:

1. The Back Stories.

Often what draws people into the Olympics is the few athletes with amazing stories. At the Paralympics, an amazing story is a basic entry requirement. South African swimmer Achmat Hassiem survived a shark attack, British volleyball player Martine Wright lived through a terrorist attack and then there’s Spanish swimmer Sebastián Rodríguez, who was jailed as a terrorist. Channel 4’s promo trailer highlights the athletes’ collective back stories.

(The spot has also given hip hop legends Public Enemy their biggest overseas chart hit ever.)

2. Elite Sport.

US Wheelchair rugby player Scott Hogsett may have said it best in the Oscar-nominated documentary Murderball: “We’re not going for a hug. We’re going for a f——-g gold medal.” In the 200m final, South African sprint star Oscar Pistorius — and the world — were reminded just how competitive it is and that anything can happen. The 100m final, “The Battle of the Bladerunners,” on September 6 was the most-watched moment ever in Paralympic sport.

3. Challenging preconceptions.

Speaking of wheelchair rugby, anyone who thinks someone in a wheelchair must be fragile needs only to spend a few moments watching these guys (all of whom are technically quadriplegic).

4. It’s not about the wheelchairs.

After a few minutes, the wheelchairs (or prosthetics) seem to fade away. Like a tennis raquet or ice skates, it’s just equipment. The game is about the players battling it out.

5. Innovation.

Innovation comes from working within a set of contraints to get to your goal. If Silicon Valley is looking for inspiration, the Paralympics offer plenty: champion archers who have no arms, distance runners who have no legs and high jumpers who get around on crutches. If the Olympics are about perfect technique, the Paralympics are about being creative and making the most with what you’ve got.

6. Passion.

If anyone needed reminding that Paralympians are full-time athletes who train as hard as Olympians (often alongside them and sometimes working even harder), British cyclist Jody Cundy did so. When a judge refused to allow his to restart after Cundy said the start gate malfunctioned, the cyclist threw a legendary fit. He later apologised and bounced back to win a bronze in his ‘B’ event. The Times of London’s Simon Barnes wrote: “Cundy showed dramatically, and a touch disgracefully, that Paralympic sport matters: that there are times when Paralympic sport feels like a matter of life and death; just as the sport did in the other Games they held in London a few weeks back.”

7. Irreverence.

Every night Channel 4 caps its coverage with a lighthearted show called “The Last Leg” hosted by Australian comedian Adam Hills. Hills, who has a prosthetic leg himself, is one of the few TV hosts who can tell Jody Cundy that he has “prosthesis envy” and mean it. For those outside the UK, here’s a taste of how Hills got the gig. You can also see viewers’ questions to Hills about what you can and can’t say at the Paralympics on Twitter under #isitok.

8. Pushing human limits.

This promo doesn’t do it justice but ahead of the Paralympics, Channel 4 did a documentary where neurologists and sports scientists explained how Paralympians perform. They showed how track runners recalibrate their balance with each stride, how for a swimmer with cerebral palsy, one side of her brain rewired itself to control both sides of her body for symmetrical strokes, or how a wheelchair rugby player’ needs superhuman endurance because his paralysed chest muscles won’t help his lungs expand and contract.

9. Troops who could use your support.

On Sept. 11, 2011, US Navy Lt. Brad Snyder was blinded by an IED (improvised explosive device) in Afghanistan. Less than a year later, he won two gold medals in London. He’s just one of the many service members representing their countries at the Games.

10. NBC thinks you’re not ready.

“I don’t know what the rationale was behind the decision, but we have a way to go. That disconnect between the US being a world leader in disability issues and the broadcast coverage in real time of the Games is disappointing,” Aimee Mullins, the US Paralympic team’s chef de mission told The Guardian.

“When I watch Mad Men and I see the patronising attitudes to women that are so shocking for all of us to watch now, I feel that I’ve lived and see the same evolution in this regard around disability,” she said.

NBC’s fellow Paralympics broadcast rights holder in Canada, CTV, chose to take its lead from New York instead of London. (CTV’s Games slogan: “Believe.” Number of Paralympic events broadcast live: Zero.) Despite this, the Canadian Paralympic Committee is trying show Paralympians’ dynamism on the airwaves with the spot above.

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