Front cover of Brendan Gately

'Look up, stretch your wings, and fly'

Author of 'Look up, stretch your wings, and fly', Brendan Gately, shares extracts from his book about his groups experience of supporting Team GB at the Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996 and London 2012 Paralympic Games.

Message from the author:

The words which form the title of this book originate with Shakespeare and have inspired the Paralympic movement.

The origins of this work can be traced back to my first real steps in looking beyond disability to discover the true person as a novice helper on a holiday group for disabled people.

This experience was the springboard for my continued participation over many years in this rewarding group activity. It led to many new friendships particularly through the uplifting world of the Paralympics.

Our committed fellowship of British supporters blazed our own continental trails, proudly carrying our Union flags, to witness the ever-improving performances of these elite athletes in stretching the boundaries of human endeavour.

As the book highlights, the far-reaching positive influences of the Paralympics are, perhaps, not always fully appreciated. They are an inspiration to us all to set ourselves new goals and live our own dreams.

Spectators flying country flags at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics

Proudly flying our Union flags at the Atlanta 1996 Summer Paralympic Games

 Quote from Chinese Philosopher, Lau Tzu who once said

A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.

This may well have particular application for the Paralympic movement as well as the personal pathway of many Paralympians. For the movement itself, its amazing journey is far from run, but for any number of people with disabilities their journey has yet to begin. They will need our encouragement and support to take that first step towards a potentially life-changing experience.

Par-Able: Barcelona 1992

Extracts from Chapter VI:

The opening ceremony was both captivating and inspiring with the ideals of the Paralympic movement being wonderfully intertwined with Catalan traditions throughout the ceremony.

Parade of Catalan historical figures at the 1992 Barcelona Paralympic opening ceremony

Historical Catalan figures at the opening ceremony

Great applause greeted the parade of more than 3,000 athletes and officials from 85 delegations. These included flag-bearers, escorts, mascots and medical teams of each delegation as well as guide dogs. As one of the world’s great tenors, José Carreras, started to sing the Paralympic anthem, eight athletes in wheelchairs slowly entered the stadium carrying the Paralympic flag. The whole stadium fell into respectful, almost reverential silence.

Team GB entering the stadium at the 1992 Barcelona Paralympics

Team GB entering the stadium at the opening ceremony

The legendary Montserrat Caballé and Salvador Tavora’s transcending duet - The White Dove - saw doves released into the evening sky, symbolising man’s search to establish a world at peace with itself built upon justice and equality.

British scientist, Professor Stephen Hawking also gave a message:

I would like to greet those at the 1992 Paralympics in Barcelona. I feel these Games serve a useful purpose, because they provide an opportunity to excel. Each one of us has within us a spark of fire, a creative force. We are all special in our own way, because there is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being. We are all different. Some of us have lost the use of parts of our bodies, through accident or illness, but that is really of minor significance. It is just a mechanical problem ... The important thing is that we have the human spirit, the ability to create. This creativity can take many forms, from theoretical physics, to physical achievement. The important thing is that one should be stretched to be outstanding in some field. These Games provide an opportunity for that ... It is time we obtained similar respect for the needs of those who happen to be disabled. We should not expect other people to think of these things and provide them for us. Rather, we should campaign to have our needs recognised, as other disadvantaged groups have done. This is the message I would like togive to those at the Games. My best wishes for your success. Good luck to you all.

Great performances in both track and field met with the continuous ringing out of applause from an audience simply astonished by what they were witnessing for the very first time. One–legged high-jumpers clearing amazing heights typified the indomitable will of the athletes.

The stadium, however, would be stunned into silence when in a men’s 5,000m final a dramatic eight-chair high-speed crash hospitalised three athletes.

One of the most outstanding performances was that of one-armed Ajibola Adeoye, a Nigerian athlete, who ran the remarkable time of 10.72 sec in the 100m T45, 46 classes to smash the world record out of sight. He would repeat his success at Atlanta again winning both the 100m and 200m events.

Coming into Barcelona, no athlete could be considered a household name. Was this perhaps a reflection of worldwide attitudes towards disability and/or the lack of media attention given to disability sport?

One emerging British athlete was about to come to the fore, winning four gold medals. Tanni Grey, born with spina bifida, now Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, would become one of the most prominent and recognisable faces of sport, and a champion of disability rights.

The wonderful organisation, amazing crowds and the impressive number of new world records together with the much improved serious media coverage had taken the Paralympics to a whole new level. Barcelona had thrown a massive switch.

Into the Furnace: Atlanta 1996

Extracts from Chapter VIII:

The mad haste to clear up after the 1996 Atlanta Olympics took place without any apparent thought being given to the staging of the world’s second-largest multi-discipline event. Centennial Park, celebrating 100 years of the modern Olympiad, had been taken apart, sections of the Olympic village closed down and essential communications equipment removed, all before the Paralympics had even begun! It appeared as if the Paralympians were not even an afterthought.

Delegations found that one of the consequences of closing down part of the athletes’ village was that two people were now sharing what had been single accommodation for the Olympians. Wheelchair athletes were given rooms so cramped that they had to leave their chairs in the corridors, a hazard for any blind person as British swimmer Tim Reddish found out to his cost. Athletes had to endure lengthy queues for lukewarm food and erratic transport.

It also brought back memories of 1984 when Los Angeles (LA), host Olympic city that year, had declined to host the Paralympics, forcing organisers to scramble around for other sites. Stoke Mandeville and New York had come to the rescue.

One can only imagine how the athletes themselves felt about being treated in such a fashion. What impact would all this have on their performance levels? That, by far, was the easiest question to answer, for having battled against the odds all their lives they would overcome any obstacle placed in their way -including wheelchairs - and deliver performances in Atlanta that able-bodied people could only ever dream of achieving.

The Paralympic torch would be lit from the eternal flame that burns at Dr Martin Luther King’s tomb.

Martin Luther Kings tomb

Martin Luther King’s tomb, Atlanta, Georgia

Our first taste of the Games was provided by the fast-moving and sometimes dramatic opening ceremony which gave full expression to American culture and the spirit of the Paralympics.

The President of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), Dr Robert Steadward, had this to say:

Our Paralympic Games are a gleam of splendour across what is sometimes a troubled story of our time. Sport alone cannot bring about a world of peace, but the unity of purpose, friendship and the spirit of fair play which accompanies any championship endeavour will help to plant the seed of hope. It will require the dedication of all of us to strive towards peace and solidarity for the people and nations of the world and will be rewarded with a vision of the future that is unclouded, where dreams are fulfilled.

Some days the temperature would climb up to 90 degrees. This was another major challenge for athletes with physical disabilities particularly in the long distance events where there would be no less than eight marathons and five 10,000m races.

Tanni had elected to compete again in the 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m (T52 class) events which had heats and semi-finals. She won three silver medals in the shorter distance events, just losing out to the `new kid on the block`, the American Leann Shannon. She would, however, turn the tables in her epic head-to-head T52 800m race when she had to smash the world record in order to do so. It was the major race featured in Tanni’s 'This is Your Life' programme and was a masterclass in tactical awareness with Tanni following in the slipstream of her arch rival and then accelerating down the home stretch to fly past in her chariot and win.

The attendance figures, judging by the 500,000 tickets sold, fell far below the 1.4 million people who had packed into Barcelona’s sporting venues in 1992. 

Medal ceremony at the Aquatic Centre at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics

Medal ceremony at the Aquatic Centre

The low-key atmosphere in the Olympic Stadium was in stark contrast to the Aquatic Centre, where all the evening finals in the swimming pool took place before packed houses. One memorable night for some of us, saw two major British successes with Emily Jennings winning in the 200m individual medley (SM9 Class) by 0.02 sec and then Sarah Bailey winning the same distance medley (SM10 Class) in a new world record by 0.01 sec: one coming from behind to snatch gold the other desperately hanging on to do so. There were many other highlights for the British team with Steve Payton recording three athletics gold medals in the T37 100m, 200m and 400m and Jo Jackson three equestrian gold medals in the Grade IV kur canter and dressage as well as the team open event.

Pele with the group at Atlanta 1996 Paralympics

Pele, our honorary Brit

One of the highlights for the group was the chance meeting with Pele, Brazil's Independent Minister of Sport, when in answer to a CBS reporter he emphatically stated:

The Paralympics are as important as the Olympics.

Closing ceremony at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics

Closing ceremony

The ‘Isles of Wonder’ Games: London 2012

Extracts from Chapter XI:

The ‘Isles of Wonder’ spectacle of the opening ceremony, involving 10,000 volunteers, was watched by more than one billion people. In ripping up the rule-book, Danny Boyle, the director, would acknowledge the inspiration volunteers had given the organisers and not the other way round. It would become known as 'the people’s ceremony' clearly showing the diversity of Britain with real pride.

While the Olympics had their 'Super Saturday', the Paralympics had its 'Thrilling Thursday' which saw us rocking up to the Olympic Stadium for another amazing night of British athletics as part of a sell-out crowd. It would also turn the spotlight on another three British athletes, namely Jonnie Peacock, Hannah Cockroft and David Weir. Collectively, they would win seven golds at the Games. All would significantly raise the profile of disability sport in the UK with Cockroft and Peacock now joining Weir (and others) as household names.

Firstly the false start, then the spontaneous chanting of 'Peacock, Peacock' resounding around the stadium, followed by his cool gesture beckoning silence from the great amphitheatre.

Jonnie Peacock ready to race on the track at the London 2012 Paralympics

The moment of truth

In this long-awaited final track event of the night which saw the highest class field ever assembled for an amputee sprint, our blade runner had an assured confidence about him – he seemed in control. For the second time, the gun fired to let loose a deafening roar matching anything heard in the Olympic Stadium on 'Super Saturday' carrying Peacock to victory.

Earlier in the evening Hannah Cockroft had shown the same confidence as her British team-mate. She had already won gold in her T34 100m final a few days earlier and was now hoping to complete her success in the T34 200m final as the world champion and world record holder.

Hannah Cockroft competing at the London 2012 Paralympics

Cockroft on her way to gold

Her confidence was well founded for ‘Hurricane Hannah’ - a cerebral palsy athlete - duly won quite easily in a time of 31.90 sec. We later learned that it was Ian Thompson, Tanni’s husband, who had introduced Cockroft to wheelchair racing. She would go on to enjoy greater success in Rio winning three more gold medals.

David Weir, known as ‘Weirwolf’ went to the starting line of the T54 800m final, hoping to achieve his third gold, having won both the T54 5,000m and T54 1,500m. Leading up to the Games, he had trained in a local park with a team of cyclists which had taken him to the limit of his endurance.

In a thrilling race, Weir positioned himself in second place until making his move around the back turn holding on in the final stretch to beat another high class field. To be present in the Olympic Stadium to see him win all three of his gold medals was a real privilege. However, Weir’s London Paralympic mission had not quite finished.

He would have just two days before taking on the world’s best in the T54 marathon. It seemed an impossible task he had set himself. Towards the end of the race, as they swept into the Mall, there were still several athletes in contention, at which point Weir broke clear to come home, just one second ahead of his nearest rival in 1hr 30min 20sec. He later said it was the toughest race of his life. He also paid tribute to the marvellous crowd support  - sometimes ten deep – that kept him going when he felt he was 'dying'.

David Weir competing in the Marathon at the London 2012 Paralympics

Now for the Marathon

Weir, born with a severed spinal cord, had achieved a remarkable feat winning a quartet of gold medals, a number matched only by Tanni - at both Barcelona and Sydney - among British track and field Paralympians.

'Thrilling Thursday' attracted a TV audience of more than six million viewers on Channel 4 which has always given – from the time it first got involved – excellent coverage of disability sport. Team GB won 14 medals – eight in athletics – on this momentous day. Peter Eriksson, UK Athletics Paralympic Head Coach, thought,

This was the greatest night in Paralympic history and probably one of the top three nights in sport.

'Super Saturday' and 'Thrilling Thursday' perfectly captured a glorious summer in a golden age of British athletics. To see sell-out crowds not only for the evening finals sessions of the Paralympics but also for the morning qualification events, took disability sport to yet another level.

Acknowledgements

Thank you to Brendan for sharing extracts and images from his book which can be downloaded free of charge here: https://www.peregrine05.org. Thank you to all the contributors of the book, their names can be found on the acknowledgements page, page V of the book.