It was great watching the Paralympics, so many sets of wheels and carbon fibre in various shapes it was feast of material multiplicities. If there was ever a time to watch a rich, complex version of the diversity of human physical performance, this was it. But I am bothered by the fact that the only time functionally diverse bodies become noticed and appreciated is every 4 years through sport. Which begs a question about body image. Is it more what images of bodies we see that helps certain bodies be seen as acceptable, or more ‘normal’? Our usual programming of common functioning sport with the narrow choices normally offered is disrupted momentarily – for the novelty of both the Olympics and Paralympics. Which is why I view the Paralympics with mixed feelings. Body image is more like body stories, it’s the words and meanings that describe and give value to who we are – how our body matter ‘matters’ or doesn’t.
I can appreciate the achievement and skill of Sophie Pascoe and Liam Malone, but I also notice how their bodies function at a level that is almost identical to common functioning. Their athletic achievements are phenomenal and the camera loves them both – they are both (in my opinion) extremely photogenic people, with muscular, athletic physiques that few people can ever achieve. So they are perfect representatives with the perfection of lean mean body machines.
The irony then is these bodies break stereotypes and maintain stereotypes. Their stories of success and triumph in sport offer alternative ideas about what people can or cannot do. But not everyone with a disability wants to participate in sport or even likes sport! It sets up the ‘they are so inspirational’ theme, that while on the surface seems harmless, it confines disability as a lens through which people can maintain their sense of privilege. If that sounds a bit weird, this is a good explanation. But where are their images of success of disabled/functionally unique people doing other stuff? Because it’s not just the image it’s the stories we need to hear and share with each other about our own bodies that matter as well.
I’m also interested in the aesthetic of movement, and I love seeing the ways the physical can merge with the technological in new combinations. A future Olympics that genuinely celebrated human performance of the body might include a range of ages and function, I can imagine the games broken up into elements like ‘wheels’ ‘water’ and the 5 continents each hosting an element simultaneously. I’d like to see arts, music and creative festivals follow to break down the separation of mind and body, the arts and sciences. Unfortunately that might mean pruning back the number of sports, but I think I’d rather see more diversity of people than sport. But if I had the choose, if it involves wheels – it should be in there. Well, maybe wheelbarrow racing might be be pushing it.
Body’s struck by the dazzling light. A moment taken to gather nerves and step out for the first time. Hearts racing the crowd on the edge of their seats. This is it the moment we have all been waiting for. Months of build-up, the count-down is over, fighting back the tears of joy and delight. Tension and anticipation broken by the emergence of the performance. It’s awkward and a little uncoordinated but that’s ok, most of them are only three years old.
It’s their first ballet recital and the choreographed stage fright is nothing short of brilliant and is truly inspirational. Meanwhile on the other side of the world a bunch of other performers wait in their own test on the world stage. Their costumes will be worn with the same level of pride and a bit less tulle. They will wrestle with the same emotions, fear, excitement, triumph and satisfaction.
Playing on the stage and field with dirty knees and hearts filled with pride. Where both try-d. Today was a first for many and many cried.
Inside a building two pools side by side separated by glass. But looking is not the same as seeing. There is a sense of separation and a dissolution of barriers. It is a beautiful contradiction hidden to most but the curving corners of my mouth betray the fluid intensity before me and the surge of joy and appreciation at witnessing so many bodies in various states of motion and becoming.
Young bodies expand and explore the depths of movement with eagerness and energy while larger bodies next door also move with purpose and focus. Technique and a desire to improve and become a better swimmer the shared experience. Feedback from coaches refining the co-ordination of limbs in various combinations, careful additions, subtractions correcting strokes of a body with spokes. Goggles on, prosthetics off and time running the same for everyone. Standing in the shallow water those beginning to appreciate and assemble the skills to move through this alien medium peer through to the other side with a mix of awe and respect. No, it is ‘not over their heads’, they know intuitively the work and effort that is perhaps the only thing that might represent a distinction between them. Perhaps from the others side, there is an awareness, a sense of the mirror and recognising the journey taken. The simple act of a smile, a wave crossing time and space to reach through illusions of separation rendering a fluidity of now and exacting a perfect moment of immanence.
Like superheroes without capes casting aside previous limits and rescuing role model images from the clutches of neurotic gendered stereotypes that prevail through more traditional sports. Not a body hair in sight yet no masculinity was in question or of concern to these guys in tight fitting body wear. Women as broad and powerful with their physicality and proudly sporting body art displaying achievements. But none were immune to goggle eyes and cap hair. These finely tuned biological machines and machines within machines, metallic eyes and cybernetic limbs assembled together as aquatic mammals.
A place where butterflies exist without a chrysalis. Although there might just be a hint of caterpillar at times.
[Written after watching the New Zealand Open Swimming Champs from the confines of the learn to swim pool next door – best free sports viewing ever, although it is rather steamy and hot…the air temperature!]