The power of the Paralympic Games

Community Co-Ordinator, Becky, has worked in the events industry for over 12 years - her favourite event ever may surprise you...

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London 2012 Para-dressage medal ceremony

Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors was first established in Horsham, West Sussex, in 1855. Remaining independent and family-run in the present day, the company now has three further offices – in Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint – across the county. As international events continue to resume having experienced serious disruption due to the coronavirus pandemic, Becky looks forward to the Paralympic Games in Tokyo…

As an events professional, I’m regularly asked what the best event I’ve ever been to is. The indecision in my response is always genuine! I consider myself fortunate to have enjoyed some fantastic experiences, both professionally and personally.

I’ve stood on Westminster Bridge at midnight on New Year’s Eve, with a prime view of the fireworks.  I’ve danced through Brighton as part of a silent disco group. I’ve cheered on knights in armour participating in a joust at Amberley Castle, and watched Olympians give demonstrations at an equestrian show, and met some of my favourite authors at book signings, with a highlight being a supper club version, where the guests enjoyed dinner with the author.

And I’ve been to many more fantastic sporting events – from being on Centre Court to watch Rafael Nadal take the Wimbledon title in 2010, to witnessing England’s historic victory over India in the ICC World Cup at Lord’s in 2017. I’ve also taken in some brilliant live music – my first festival in 2003 was an experience I’ll never forget, as was a much more intimate show in a local club two years later.

But when I’m really pushed, naming my favourite is actually easy. In 2012, I lived and worked in London. I was disappointed not to be involved in the Olympics, and to not manage to get tickets. There was a big push for attendance at the Paralympics though, and with tickets being comparably cheap, I booked some for myself, my sister, and two of my colleagues.

One drizzly Saturday in September, we all met in Greenwich to enter the equestrian arena. And had our lives changed forever. It took my breath away from start to finish, even though I hadn’t been particularly excited. I’m a lifelong equestrian, and I’d been to several elite-level events as a spectator at this point. I’d never attended a para-equestrian event though, and had in fact not seen any disabled riders in action, as the para-equestrian world is quite separate.

I know how challenging riding is from the inside, so I did appreciate that there were additional obstacles for these athletes, but I also knew that the movements involved in their routines were incredibly different from those competing at the Olympic Games. They’re regarded as being comparably far more basic, and this is for a good reason, but when you’re used to seeing highly complex routines which are a lot more dynamic, it does make you think that what you will see could be far less exciting.

And I couldn’t have been more wrong, because I hadn’t factored in the atmosphere.

Firstly, the organisers did a great job of setting the scene. At the elite level of equestrianism, dressage events are incredibly still and quiet – the majority know who they’ve come to see, and there’s very little in the way of announcements. There may be background music, but that’s it. For this occasion, there was an announcer, who was both introducing the athletes and giving some background on them.

For each athlete, we were told a little more about their disability and their equestrian history, and this context was really helpful, and made us all feel more engaged with the experience. We were also encouraged to wave, rather than cheer – this is fairly normal at equestrian events, as the horses can be easily spooked, but we were advised of the additional importance at this event. Due to their disabilities, many of the athletes aren’t able to safely cope if their horse is startled, so we were asked to refrain from clapping and cheering until they were safely back with a handler, and to wave in the meantime.

As the competition progressed, I reconsidered my previous assessment that the action wasn’t exciting enough. I know full well how difficult riding a horse is, and I do so with the privilege of having no disabilities. Bearing this in mind, I watched the athletes performing differently, and was soon swept up in their achievements. Equestrians will often assert the importance of their relationship with their horse, and never is this more evident than in para-equestrianism, when horses may even have learned to exercise additional patience, or respond to cues that other horses may not know due to their rider’s different physique.

We’d purchased tickets for both the morning and afternoon sessions, and at the end of the first one, a medal ceremony took place. As with the Olympics, a podium is constructed and various officials troop out with the customary medals, flowers and mascots to hand to the winners. Flags are attached to the correct poles, and then the athletes appear.

Equestrian medal ceremonies at the Olympics involve the athletes riding into the arena, then dismounting and handing their horses to an assistant whilst they take to the podium to receive their medals. The logistics are different for the Paralympics: the horses are instead led in, and the riders make their way in by other means – those who are able, walk; some use mobility scooters or wheelchairs. Having only seen the riders mounted prior to this, their entrances hit home for me.

The medal ceremony provoked the emotions I expected – I was pleased for the athletes, and could feel a similar sensation from the rest of the crowd, as thousands of us watched them receive their medals, and flags were raised on the appropriate poles.

I watched Paralympic sport differently after this. London’s coverage was widely praised for broadening understanding of both Paralympic sport – much was done to explain the categories better than previously, and the coverage made use of hosts with lived experience of disability as well as recognisable faces from the sporting world – and of accessibility needs in general. Many of us (I include myself in this!) purchased tickets as a consolation prize, having been unsuccessful in securing tickets for the Olympics, and came away with our minds changed; I’ve found this particularly true of those who attended the athletics events in the London Stadium, reporting how the atmosphere was fantastic there and that they’d really enjoyed it. Having experienced the sport live now, I’d no longer regard this as a lesser option. It is different to watching other sports, but that’s true of all things – the experience of attending track and field events would always be different from that of being present at the aquatics centre, or the velodrome, for example.

Whilst it’s not possible to travel at the moment, we can still support one of my favourite events by following the Paralympics online and on TV – in the UK, Channel 4 is covering the Games, and you can find out more about it here. The Paralympic Games started on 24th August, and conclude on 5th September. And if you’re considering planning ahead, the even better news is that Paris is not far away – if you’re able to make the short trip, I’d highly recommend it, and may just see you there.

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Written by Becky Hughes

Community Co-Ordinator

August 25, 2021

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