Wednesday, 29 August 2012


Disclaimer: For a while, what felt like a long while, but which was actually short by comparison, I thought I was going to need a wee bit of superhuman help myself as my legs took on a bit of a life of their own, wouldn't go the way I wanted them to go, went dead randomly, and frequently resulted in my not being able to walk if I did something as stupid as stop in one place too long.

I'm okay now. (I'm not but we'll pretend I am, as I am mostly, enough for no one else to ever notice)

I'd like to say that that experience opened my eyes to the frustrations of the unpredictability of your body always working when you asked it to. That I'd never noticed disabled people before that. But I'd be lying. What actually happened was that Channel 4 did a proper job of broadcasting the Paralympics in Beijing and I was hooked. That's what actually happened. Then I went to the velodrome in Manchester to watch some racing and saw one of the most fragile looking people I'd ever seen tear the track up.

Or maybe some of it is a healthy dose of wake up call.

What's interesting is that my experience is not the other 2,999,999 people who've bought Paralympic tickets experience.

What's even more interesting is the stealth marketing campaign we are all being subjected to. Because make no mistake about it, when it's a broadcaster driving a narrative, one must assume it is a marketing campaign in order to drive audiences to satisfy stakeholders that bidding for the rights to the Paralympics was worth it and not out of some sort of social responsibility. Though I'd like to think there was a wee dose of that among some of the decisions which have been made.


It makes me think of the augmented physicality of Oscar Pistorius. It makes me think about achieving magnificent things in the face of adversity.

That's not the story I'm hearing from the athletes themselves, however. Instead, I hear conviction that disability has unlocked something that was there but was not needed, or was there but never acknowledged, or was there but was buried. That for those who have become disabled in the time their memories were awake, it is not a case of exist, it is a case of exist, deal, assimilate and then continue, but with eyes on goals and new found determinations and passions awakened.

But we shouldn't forget that the journey can be difficult. We shouldn't forget the darkness and sadness that comes from losing what you were so used to having. Melanie Reid has been writing a visceral and sometimes tear inducing column for The Times for some time now as she documents her recovery from an accident involving her horse which has left her paralysed. We should not forget that to be #superhuman is not to simply achieve physically. It is to be where Melanie is, to hurt and feel destroyed and then to somehow move past that.

Now, some people move quick and some people move slow. Some people channel anger and some people need to deal with it. And I disclaimer all of this as I have never felt these emotions except in perhaps fleeting moments, so I assume. I jump to conclusions, and they may be wrong.

But it feels really important to me to not assume that someone like Melanie is a failure because she is not in a wheelchair flinging herself around a court with her elbows out. And on the flipside it's really important not to assume that those who do, have not been down incredibly painful paths to go there. And yet again, to not assume that they have.

Because, you see, disability is not a brush with only one pot of colour. There are people in those wheelchairs, in those pools and on those courts. Amazing people. Magnificent people. Awe inspiring people. But they're people.

Tomorrow, any one of us could find ourselves in a similar position.

So I don't think we should necessarily cling to the #superhuman tag too hard. I think we should celebrate all people for who they are and what they achieve, despite of something or because of something with one tag, and one tag only.


Isn't it flipping ace, this being human thing?

Monday, 6 August 2012

The Peoples Games

What makes a stadium great?

Is it the events which unfold within it?

Is it the track which is fast and sees World and Olympic records fall inside it?

Or is it the noise. The cacophony of cheering, the overwhelming, hair raising, goosebump inducing roar, that from outside sounds like a jet engine or 3 spinning up to speed.

Where does this noise come from? Is the acoustics of the stadium, the echoes, reverberation or the feedback and bounce back inside the human formed bowl?

Or is it the people. The 80,000 people. A large proportion of whom are partisan. Who will cheer everyone, absolutely everyone, who will even shed a tear for those who win and are proud, are emotional, have achieved great things, but who ultimately have discovered that right now, they are Team GB to the core?

Architecture is beautiful. Lighting is beautiful. Lines and curves and fancy planting are beautiful. But beauty is nothing if there is an absence of soul behind the facade.

Our Olympic Stadium has a soul inside it, a heart that beats in time to the applause. And that soul is us. All of us, who cheer from our sofas and our pub benches, our picnic blankets and our commentary boxes. We give   a Stadium life, and we will remove it once the Closing Ceremony comes to a close.

But these are our games, all of ours, not just Londoners, not just those lucky enough to get a ticket. Americans give interviews to camera telling us that we are a nation of sport lovers. We weren't. But we are now. Eyes wide open to possibilities that do not include football or rugby or cricket.

But what gives a stadium life? The people within it, and the people without it. All of us. Perhaps part of the legacy is to understand that for two weeks we were a heartbeat. United in beating. And no one, no one at all, will ever be able to take that away from us.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

On helmets

Once upon a time there was a girl with a mum.

The girl loved her mum very much. As she grew up she realised there was something slightly different about her mum, but she didn't mind because occasionally her mum hugged her and occasionally she sat and podded peas with her, and occasionally baked bread with her. They rode bikes together too. Lots of bikes. And they didn't wear helmets because helmets cost money and getting second hand helmets was less easy than getting second hand bikes which is what they rode.

Quiet friendship and quiet conversation happened on those rides and they happened in sunshine, winter or summer. Vivid memories of frozen fingers, wool ill suited to the speed attained whizzing down the gentle hills of Somerset.

More time passed. Mum left dad and life quietened and distance became closeness again. Trust gained and trust received and friendship reforged. A daughter understanding that in some things, protecting mother instead of seeking mothers protection is the way the world turns. No more hand holding across roads, no more assurance to be sought. Striking out in the world and making mistakes, always honest about the mistakes, and always accepted as simply being herself.

The girl left home and went to university. Moved a lot. Her mum moved a lot too. Time and energies focused on a sister with ME and a quiet backing away by the girl, independence compounded by distance and focus and more than all of this, simply life.

Time passed.

And then, one day, the girl received a phone call.

Mum had been riding her bike to work as she did every single day. She'd mostly always been a utility rider rather than a leisure rider. 3 speeds, and a basket on the front type of girl. She'd rode out of the flat and down the hill and some construction work had left some mud on the road. So mum, going downhill at the speed she usually did, skidded and went head first straight into a lamp post.

She wasn't wearing a helmet.

She had to call the ambulance herself from her mobile phone through the sheets of blood falling.

The girl went to see her mum. The phone call came 2 weeks after the accident. Mum hadn't wanted to worry the girl, conscious of being a mother, of protecting from the worst. Sister was given as next of kin to the hospital. The girl found her mother with a partly shaved head, and staples all across her scalp, huge staples, the biggest staples she'd ever seen, all the way across from ear to ear. The staples were so big she couldn't see past them, or maybe she simply didn't want to see what might be below.

The mum can't use her middle finger properly any more and she can't wriggle her eyebrows any more in the way  that used to make the girl giggle hysterically when she was a child. Mum can't move her left eyebrow very much at all. The nerve was severed. The finger is slightly confusing.

What is less confusing, and yet more confusing for the girl, is the way her mother isn't quite her mother any more. She can't quite put her finger on it and if you pushed and pushed she'd have to sit down and really really think about it. But she's avoided doing that the last few years because it's too painful. She talks like her mum but she doesn't laugh like her mum. The look in her eyes isn't quite that of her mum either. The cadence of her speech is off, she's slightly not quite right.

And she knows it.


I love my mum. And because I love my mum, don't ever, ever, ever talk to me about helmets. I will simply turn my back and walk away from you. It is not a subject that is up for discussion. I do not want to talk about it. But what I do want to say, very much, is that brain damage cannot be fixed, not with all the money in the entire world.

A decent helmet can be had for £20. It makes you sweaty and gives you helmet hair?

Try the shaved and stapled look.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

About being a girl

Until Brad Wiggins won a gold this afternoon in the cycling time trial, a very interesting tale was unfolding on the Olympics medal table, and it screamed 'here come the girls'. But it's not just the medal table that's telling a very interesting story during this Olympics.

First on my radar was Lizzie Armitstead using the platform of winning a silver medal in the women's road race to discuss sexism in sport and in cycling in particular. What she had to say was no surprise. That she said it, was. Unsurprisingly, in the process of becoming, for want of a better word, a pedaler, many conversations have centered around always being the lone female in a group of blokes out mountain biking, of the assumption always being that you're only there because your boyfriend is, of the dickheads shouting abuse out of car windows and the fact that boys don't buy cycling magazines with pictures of girls riding bikes on the front. But underlying all those conversations, every single one, has been the deep seated assumption that this is how it is, how it will always be, and that to 'whine and moan' about it is not going to get us anything but resentment from 50% of the population who when skewed participation is taken into account, are actually more like 90% of the population.

Except that's changing. And it's on the road it's changing, not on the mountain side. Girls mountain biking will, I think, always be a little bit unusual. But girls riding to work, commuting with the sunshine, that's 50%. Girls going on ride outs at the weekend and stopping for tea and cake, that's creeping slowly but surely towards 50% too. Serious girls in serious lycra competing in crits and sportives? Rising. As is membership of British Cycling.

It will be very interesting to see what response Lizzie gets. The lack of derision and instigation of serious discussion in various quarters gives hope.

On to women's hockey. Kate Walsh got smashed in the jaw with a hockey stick during the teams first game on Sunday evening. She went down, screamed, kicked, and then locked down and got it under control. Because female hockey players are built of teflon it was quite chilling to hear such an expression of pain, but she walked off the pitch with a broken jaw, bleeding but dignified and head held high. Why are women hockey players made of teflon? Because it's not been ruled out that now Kate has had a plate inserted into her broken jaw, it's not been ruled out at all that she will be back on the pitch and back captaining her team before the week is out.

It will be very interesting to see whether anyone registers exactly how teflon coated a woman can be.

On to weightlifting and one Zoe Smith. Don't piss her off. And certainly don't assume she's just some dumb ass idiot who took to lifting weights because her brain wasn't too great. The lady can write, and eloquently, and has done so about the ridiculous comments elicited by a documentary aired last week. But perhaps the surprise here is not the comments aimed at a powerful young black woman. Perhaps the surprise is the cacophony of agreement and cheering from the sidelines which her clear, simple and direct retort has received. Thanks but no thanks to the comments, perhaps, but I suspect thanks very much to the positive discussions it's kicked off.

Finally, the woman's football team. This image spoke volumes today, as did this one. They tell the combined story of 75,000 people trekking to Wembley, not the most convenient of destinations on a Tuesday night, to see a team of women who few have ever heard of, play football with the kind of joy, passion and freedom that I last remember seeing associated with football back in the late 80's/early 90's.   Even the coach is a star in my eyes, tempering joy at the first goal with gentle downward pushes of her hands, face solemn, message clear 'we're not done here yet girls, we're not done and you know we're not'. At the end, that same coach hugged the male Brazilian coach without affectation or showmanship, the simple but unfettered expression of appreciation at meeting an equal, beating them fairly, and giving respect but also thanks.

Last time we saw a coach of any male team hugging anyone at all? Last time we saw a female coach of a football team? Last time we saw a black female coach of a football team winning and winning well?

For me these are the stories. For me they are the hope. They are the little shards of light that say that girls have a place in sport in this country. That we are earning our right, not only to be sportswomen, but to be sports fans as well, that we are not just physios and masseurs but we are the smart, and the intelligent, the strategic and the teflon coated, the ballsy and the brave.

Someone just posted a message on Twitter. It said:

Thanks to the Olympics, our tellies and papers are full of talented, determined classy people rather than 'celebrities'. It's very nice indeed. @PoppyD

 For two weeks, every time any girl or woman turns on the television they will be bombarded with images of successful women of all ages, from 15 to 51, achieving the impossible, achieving the tangible, achieving the magnificent with bodies which are healthy, athletic, that curve differently, but that are resilient, that respond, that are capable, bodies which belong to people who are confident, passionate but most of all, very most of all happy and proud.

As far as I am concerned, the physical legacy of this games is already a deal done. It's the psychological legacy for this nation, a nation of women who have been fed celebrity at every turn, that is the one hanging in the balance. Will we understand, finally, the message being sent from every angle, or will we retreat backwards, after the games have gone, into our botox filled, intelligence mocking, make up plastered, always sweetly perfumed world we lived in before? Will we still believe size 6 is it? Will we abhor sweat instead of celebrating it as proof we tried our hardest for as long as we possibly could? Or will we rise to a legacy that says:

We are women, we are strong. We are women, we are team. We are women, we will try our damnedest. We are women, we are athletes. We are women, we are proud.

The lines are drawn. Only we can choose which side we choose to stand.