By Michael Dougherty
As a kid with spina bifida, I was the Greatest Scorekeeper West of the Hudson. I made the “number-flip and sulk” into an art form. I mention this not to invite pity, but to admit my ambivalence about sports as it pertains to my own physical challenges. Yet, here I find myself on the sideline again, but this time the perspective has changed. I am an outsider among outsiders, as we gear up for Russia’s first Paralympic Games in Sochi.
So, there is no Soviet Union anymore and “invalid”, I hope, has reverted back to an adjective which only applies to my outdated parking placard. We’ve come a long way. Men and women with various physical and mental disabilities will come to compete and grin and bear the inevitable “oh so inspirational” millstone that gets hung around every disabled person’s neck in our everyday lives. At least, I go with that expectation. It’s a part of the disability experience. Still, history has born out since the first official Paralympic Games in 1960 that there’s nothing invalid about these athletes. They come ready to rock and they want your gold medals. All of them.
Before we speculate about the courage and inspiration that will make the able-bodied (a phrase I loathe) swoon, it’s important – in fact, essential – to consider these athletes touch down in this country at a crucial time in Russian history. The title of this piece refers to a comment a Soviet official who, when pressed about the Paralympics possibly being held along with the 1980 Moscow Winter Olympic Games, replied to the contrary about the existence of said “invalids”. Now, I live in Los Angeles, the Passive-Aggressive Capital of the World, and reading that made my city’s disability carelessness seem downright welcoming. So, when President Putin announced the first ever Russian-hosted Paralympics, it struck me that, cynically, this was some kind of publicity stunt to make the Russian government, which has come under criticism from the world lately because of politically-sanctioned homophobia and its fallout of violence, in order that they appear teddy bear-ish. Fear of “otherness” governs this behavior and it’s easy to understand any unease that might come with participating in an event in a country that liked to pretend you didn’t exist, whether through institutionalization or exile. In other words, disability and Russian culture have not always been cozy bedfellows.
Yet there is a light in the dark, not because these “inspirational” people will magically appear “normal” to the watching world, but because maybe, just maybe, they’ll show that our achievements – the good we do for ourselves and the larger world by example – are what binds us in common humanity. Fear is a cheap currency and buys little beyond isolation and more fear and it is clear Russia wants to belong on the global stage. So, this moment is not about disability and how some small-minded people, disturbed by their own fragility reflected back at them, obscure the truth of us. Rather, this is about ability, not only to perform but to tear down stereotypes. This is about the power to sway hearts and minds toward greater understanding and vaulting forward from a troubled past into a brave new world. And it’s about demolishing your opponents and, one hopes, making them cry on national television.
No pressure, ladies and gentlemen. No pressure.