Sunday night saw the end of London's extraordinary Games. It was a time in which Britain was forced to look in the mirror – and saw something it rather liked, writes Jonathan Freedland
Fireworks light up the stadium during the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
The fire is out. The flame that lit up London for the best part of six golden weeks has flickered its last, extinguished in a closing ceremony that brought an end to the Paralympic Games and so to Britain's Olympic summer. Sunday night marked the end of a season of wonder that seemed to surprise the hosts as much as the guests, a period where we looked in the mirror and were met by an unexpected reflection – one we rather liked.
The end came in an extravaganza of fire and light that deployed the now-familiar London 2012 combination of the surreal and the spectacular. The athletes paraded and a member of the royal family made a grand entrance – Prince Edward this time – but so too did a motorcade of steampunk vehicles that were part Terry Gilliam, part Heath Robinson, interspersed with dancers in gorgeous costumes and performers doing wild stunts, all backed by the reliable stadium-rock of Coldplay. The audience may not have divined a clear storyline, but it hardly mattered. They wanted to drink in the spirit of London 2012 while they still could, as if they were catching the last rays of a summer sun that had warmed them so well.
And so concluded what was surely the most successful Paralympic Games since the first such competition – an archery contest among 16 disabled war veterans staged at Stoke Mandeville hospital on 28 July 1948, the opening day of the last London Olympics. This time, 64 years later, athletes competed in venues that were uniformly packed, stadiums as full as those at the Olympics a fortnight earlier thanks to a record-smashing advance sale of more than 2.4m tickets.
The result was what the sociologists call an "educable moment" for the people of this country on a topic that for many has been barely visible and rarely discussed. The subject is disability, more complicated than anything thrown up by the Olympics, but revealed in a new light by the events of the past 10 days.
The Paralympic purists would rather we didn't labour the point, preferring our focus to be on the Games as elite sport, no more and no less. The media manual from the British Paralympic Association instructed journalists: "Anything specifically relating to, or focusing on, an elite athlete's impairment is generally considered unnecessary."
Plenty of those who got hooked would agree, noting that after an initial adjustment, spectators and TV viewers did indeed start watching the Paralympics the way they watched any other sport, rooting for the home team, willing them to victory.
Those who made the stadium roar on Thursday night for David Weir, Hannah Cockroft and Jonnie Peacock were cheering the way they had for Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis and Greg Rutherford on that super Saturday night in August: for supreme athletes of strength, power and grace. But there was more to it than that, a fact acknowledged night after night by Channel 4's much-admired The Last Leg, fronted by Adam Hills, an Australian comic with a prosthetic limb.
In his closing show he recalled how the production team had regularly downed tools to marvel at, say, a one-legged athlete doing the long jump. The fact the competitor had only one leg was central to the wonder of the feat.
The serially decorated equestrian Lee Pearson said as much when, ahead of these Games, he called on his fellow Paralympians and Games organisers to be less reticent about their impairments. "Let's be interested in that," he said. "If I watch disabled sport, you're intrigued about who is disabled, what's wrong with them and how it affects them in their sport and in their daily lives."
If the choice is between emphasis on sport or on disability, perhaps the breathtaking sights on display over the last week and a half suggest an answer: both. For integral to all sport is the notion of physical endeavour within specific constraints, either of time or under the rules: what can a gymnast do on a wooden beam only 10cm thick, how many goals can a team score in 90 minutes? In Paralympic sports there are all the usual constraints and then an extra one: how fast can a man or woman run with this or that impairment? But the principle – maximum effort within fixed parameters – is the same.
What many millions now know is that this produces not a lesser form of sport but, in many cases, sport of a more intense kind. If part of the appeal of watching rugby is witnessing the physical courage of players ready to throw their bodies in front of danger, then how much more thrilling is wheelchair rugby, a game that relies on the aggression and recklessness of athletes ready to slam deliberately into an opponent, even though that might mean one or both of them tipping out of a wheelchair? The stakes are higher.
When Belgium took on Sweden on Wednesday, I gasped along with the rest of the spectators as a player was sprung from his chair and left sprawling on the ground. I assumed paramedics, or at least a couple of physios, would rush on to the indoor court to help him up. But there was no rush. Two officials conferred, debating not the player's wellbeing but whether his team had earned a penalty. The issue was sport, not disability. No wonder they call it murderball.
Similarly defining of elite sport is the display of awesome skill. No one could watch Brazil versus Argentina in the five-a-side blind football without dropping their jaw at the players' close control of the ball, precise and delicate. Such control was outstanding in itself, but in those who could not see it was little short of incredible.
And if team sports show off the human capacity for co-operation, then that's true of the Paralympics writ large. Plenty of people loved the sight of Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins rowing in tandem to win Olympic gold.
But it was deeply, unexpectedly moving to witness blind runners circling the track, each one linked to a guide, who matched them stride for stride; to see goalball teams, each player blind, emerging into the arena in single file, their hands touching the shoulder of the athlete in front; to see those Brazilian and Argentinian footballers, forced to resolve their deadlocked match by a penalty shootout, helped by a coach first tapping on each goalpost, the sound guiding them towards the target. This was humanity at its best, working together to achieve what would be impossible alone.
The world records might not be the same as those of their non-disabled fellow athletes, the times they run not as fast. But if sport is often a blend of courage, skill and teamwork then the Paralympics are sport all right – only more so. The name Paralympics hardly does the event justice: they are not to the Olympics what a paralegal is to a lawyer. In some ways, they are a more extreme version: they are the ultra-Olympics. But they are also the antidote to that Leni Riefenstahl strain of Olympianism, the cult of the body perfect which reached its climax in the 1936 Berlin Games. How appropriate that those first Stoke Mandeville Games were invented by Dr Ludwig Guttmann, a German-Jewish refugee from Nazism and its pursuit of a world free of both Jews and disabled people. For the Paralympics are the cult of the body imperfect, an insistence that even a flawed body can be glorious.
All of this has been an education for the host nation. Irene Oldham, 72 and using a wheelchair to get around the Olympic Park, told me she had grown used to people's embarrassment around disability. But the past 10 days had been different. "It's been an eye-opener, even for children. They're saying 'I can't believe they're doing this. They can do better than we can'."
Nearby was the Nicholl family, including 10-year-old Jake, who admitted he was "a bit freaked out at first" by the sight of athletes missing an arm or a leg, but who now found the sport even more exciting than the Olympics.
The shift was noticeable in the Park. If, say, an amputee in team colours went by in a wheelchair, heads would turn. Not because they were gawping at someone with a disability, but in case they'd spotted a Paralympic celebrity. They didn't want to stare; they wanted an autograph. Disabled people have long reported being ignored, mocked or even abused in the streets, talked down to or just not seen – but for 10 days, when Cockroft or Weir raced in speed wheelchairs that gleamed like ancient chariots, 80,000 people hailed them as heroes. As Sebastian Coe said in a short, pitch-perfect speech last night: "We will never think of disability the same way."
And this has not all been reverence of the familiar, triumph-over-tragedy variety (though there has been some of that). Instead these disabled athletes have been revealed in the same multiple shades as any other group of hyper-competitive super-achievers. Whether it was cyclist Jody Cundy turning the air blue with rage after he was disqualified or Oscar Pistorius being a sore loser in the 200m T44 race, it confirmed that Paralympian is not a synonym for saint – that a disabled person is also capable, as the Last Leg put it, of "being a n*b."
If patriotism is self-congratulation on a collective scale, then Britain has good reason to feel patriotic. For we embraced these Paralympic Games as no other nation has. The venues were packed, that 2.4m figure five times as large as the 480,000 advance tickets sold in Beijing in 2008. The difference in treatment has been visible in media coverage too. In Britain it's been wall-to-wall on Channel 4 and with big, poster-style front pages on many of the newspapers. In the US the rights-holding network NBC has not covered the Paralympics at all, save for an hour or two on a niche cable station and a planned 90-minute "special" to be aired next weekend.
Campaigners will say we should not pat ourselves on the back too warmly. Discrimination against the disabled is real and has not gone away deepened by benefits cuts; access in parts of London is still awful; there is even a risk that people might judge those disabled people not capable of swimming like Ellie Simmonds or cycling like Sarah Storey even more harshly, castigating them for not pushing themselves harder.
All that is true. And yet if staging a global event such as the Olympics and Paralympics is a test for a nation, then it is one Britain can justly consider itself to have passed and passed with distinction. These Games were efficient and well-run, lifted by 70,000 dedicated, welcoming volunteers. They showed a nation ready to cherish all its citizens, black and white, male and female, born here or born elsewhere and – we now know – disabled and not. For so long, it has been said that Britain is a conservative country. Well, the last six weeks, which began with an opening ceremony celebrating Britain as a place of social revolution, say otherwise.
Of course we're not perfect. But if the Paralympic Games have taught us anything, it is that perfect is not everything. Leonard Cohen did not perform in the ceremony, though as it happens he was in concert in London at the very same time.
One of his songs would have fitted neatly as an anthem for the Paralympic ideal, for it is a hymn to imperfection. "Forget your perfect offering," he sings. "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2012/sep/09/britain-paralympics?CMP=twt_gu