In the weeks leading up to the Paralympics the air was filled with a familiar, silent contradiction. The predominant line focused on how inspiring it was going to be, seeing athletes perform and overcome, despite their disabilities. At the same time, a ComRes poll for The Independent on Sunday, found that sixty-six percent agreed that "people with disabilities are often regarded as second-rate citizens".
As the closing ceremony brought a spectacular British summer of sport to an end, the sense of good-will had been transcended, replaced by admiration and acceptance. Paralympic athletes proved their worth alongside their Olympic counterparts, as they always have, but this time they were given a proper stage by Britain, from which to show the world. In doing so, they inspired a nation to examine itself and wake up, as those so frequently denied a voice, let actions speak louder than words.
One particular moment signified the broader impact made by the London Paralympics. When George Osbourne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, stepped forward to hand out medals, he was roundly booed by the 80,000 inside the stadium. The reasons for this were numerous: some spectators were protesting against the controversial means benefit tests for the disabled, and the fact that Atos, the company contracted to carry out the measures, were awarded prime Paralympics sponsorship. Others, vented their disapproval at the wider austerity measures.
Yet, far more pertinent than the party politics, is the fact that the cacophony of noise reigned down from both the able bodied and disabled, united in a voice of dissent. Osbourne's reaction said much; first he laughed nervously trying to brush off the response. Then, once the boos continued, his expression changed and, looking ashen faced, he bowed his head. How had such a safe, easy gesture of good will gone so wrong? The answer is simple. Public opinion toward the Games, and disability in general, had shifted. No longer was disability a mute, secondary sideshow, but a mainstream issue with mass public support - the Paralympics a mouth piece for society as a whole.
The figures speak for themselves. The first day of competition saw 3.6 million tune into Channel 4's coverage, surpassing the most watched broadcasts of the BBC's Paralympics highlights programmes for Beijing 2008 and Athens 2004, which had an audience peak of 2.5 million viewers in 2008. Attendance records were similarly broken, with 2.7 million tickets sold, helping to generate £10 million more than expected.
There is no doubt then that the London Paralympic Games represent a massive leap forward; a coming of age. This is also true in a sporting sense; Oscar Pistorius' shock defeat to Brazilian, Oliveira, in the T44 200 metres final did wonders for the Games' competitive credibility. The initially furious and ungracious way he handled the loss, by falsely suggesting his conqueror used blades non compliant with the regulations, will not win any accolades for sportsmanship, but leaves no doubt about the athletes' desire to achieve, or the intensity of the environment in which they aim to do so.
In some ways, Pistorius became the unwitting victim of his own ambition - he chose the shorter blades to make himself eligible to run in the Olympics, by meeting the standards of the IAAF, the sport's governing body. The hunger to compete alongside able bodied sprinters sent out a strong statement about the self perception of these top athletes. Disability does not define them, their ability does. Oliveira demonstrated the same mindset when commenting on Pistorius' claims: "It is not about two blades, it is about training".
However, for all these positive advancements made within the Paralympic bubble, the real success lies in how the increased exposure has inspired global reflection upon attitudes to disability, off the track as much as on it.
For instance, the disparity in funding and support between competing nations has now been publicised. 19 of the 25 biggest squads at the Paralympics were members of the OECD industrialised nations' club, with the other six sent by up and coming economic powerhouses, or those with especially strong Paralympic traditions. Considering Pistorius' racing legs cost around £25,000, it is easy to see how this gulf has emerged.
Social prejudices can be equally as prohibitive to funding. Charles Narh Teye, a Ghanaian power lifter and double amputee, explained: "The most difficult thing was that in school people thought that if you were physically challenged it could easily be transferred to other people."
Even nations traditionally regarded as progressive toward disability have been forced to take a long hard look at themselves. America found itself in a storm of controversy, first for its dismal Paralympic broadcasting - featuring no live coverage, and then for the state of its Paralympic development programs.
These examples may show how far there is still left to go, but the increased public awareness and widespread condemnation generated from these discussions, is telling.The London Paralympics acted as a catalyst for altering public perceptions, by proving the irrelevance of disability. Earlier this week, London held its victory parade, with British Olympic and Paralympic athletes celebrated side by side: Mo Farah next to Jonnie Peacock and David Weir, Jessica Ennis next to Ellie Simmonds and Hannah Cockroft. Second rate? Certainly not.
The challenge is extending this inspired awareness, acceptance and mindset of intergration toward other disability related issues, which as I wrote about earlier this year, Channel 4, even as the Olympic broadcaster, has sometimes failed to do. There is no more powerful agent for social change than public pressure.
The Paralympics may have won sprint gold, but the marathon has just begun.
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