A long while ago I attended a talk given by Doug Scott CBE, the Nottinghamshire mountaineer, who is a Seven Summitter, having climbed the highest peaks of the seven continents.
In a fascinating discussion, Scott was asked about the incident in 1977 on Baintha Brakk, commonly known as The Ogre in Pakistan, when he dragged himself down the mountain after breaking both his legs. "Was I brave?" Scott ruminated out loud; "No, what else do you do if you want to get down."
This would not find common assent, but when you look at his situation without the emotion of horror at his plight and gratefulness that it was not you, Scott is undoubtedly correct. This pitfall is one that awaits anyone that attempts coverage of an event where a person combats seemingly insurmountable physical challenges and this includes how you cover disability sport.
Whilst Channel 4 deserves a loud and long cheer for its brave decision to put its coverage of the London 2012 Paralympics at the heart of its broadcasting, its hour-and-a-half documentary on six of Britain's top medal aspirants, Inside Incredible Athletes, had obvious flaws, which was a great pity as much of the content was good.
Unfortunately it fell into the trap of describing almost everything about the featured athletes' performances, their ability, dedication and fortitude as extraordinary. In the background of each athlete's story is the way in which they came to be disabled and whilst it is probably necessary to cover this, the assumption of bravery because the athlete accommodates their handicap is misguided because what choice do they have? Similarly, you cannot judge whether it takes more wherewithal to cope with a disability from birth or one inflicted in an unfortunate accident.
The problem is that to the extent that each of the featured competitors was said to be extraordinary, then that must also be so for every one of their disabled opponents. Able-bodied people might think anyone competing with a physical or mental handicap deserves the accolade, but what that does is establish a different set of judgment criteria, something that disabled athletes expressly dislike because ie_SClB.t is tacitly patronising.
The temptation to dramatise the programme because of its content, both that of the athletes and the location of the Games, led the maker into flights of artistic fantasy that simply got in the way of the more interesting features of each participant's tale. Sweeping aerial shots of London and giddying camera angles took up nearly a quarter of the programme, time which could have been spent more profitably in explaining other facets of the athlete's sport, like, what are the rules of wheelchair rugby and when are they allowed to deliberately ram their opponents' wheelchairs? Where was the explanation of the bewildering number of classes in disabled swimming?
The physiological explanations about what physical constraints faced each athlete were absorbing, as far as they went, but could have been profitably developed. In addition, they would have been better given by the various medical specialists interviewed as opposed to an over-dramatic narrator.
Although certain aspects of training were covered superficially, a detailed breakdown of each athlete's preparation in terms of skill, conditioning and mental approach would have been far more interesting than the staged shots and panoramas so beloved of the program makers.
Had this programme covered able-bodied aspirants of 2012 medals we would have been given some context to their current standings within their sport, details of their competitors and the basic statistics of progression and setback as they worked through their plan for glory. These facts and projections were absent and instead we were given a programme that was only partly about sport. What disabled athletes need and crave, and what the public have to get used to, is coverage of disability sport which is no different to any other sport. The narrator said that if you wanted to see courage and commitment this was the place to look; well, these qualities are also visible in the efforts of any other highly competitive athlete and participation does not equal excellence.
Finally, there was one point memorably made by the athletes and this was their willingness to continue to give all to compete in their country's colours. In the past couple of weeks athletes like Paul Scholes have been lauded for their performances; it is a pity they prefer self-fulfilment to giving similarly for their country.