When the Superhumans became Super-Athletes

Stunning scenery, superb stadium, spectacular sport

10 days, 213 events, 32 world records, 60 championship records, 39 medals for Team GB and a third-placed finish in the medal table.

It’s fair to say that the 2017 World Para-athletics Championships was a resounding success.

The big names all rose to the challenge. Jonnie Peacock overcame crippling cramps to take the most cheered victory of the meet. Hannah Cockroft dominated the T34 class despite suffering from food poisoning. Georgie Hermitage and Kadeena Cox re-wrote the history books in their 400m events. Richard Whitehead and Hollie Arnold sent the crowd into delirium by claiming golds within 30 seconds of each other on ‘Super Saturday’ after Stef Reid delivered in the morning session. Aled Davies once again proved he can compete with able-bodied counterparts with scintillating efforts in the shot and discus.

Furthermore, a host of new talent was also unleashed. Sammi Kinghorn captured hearts across the nation with her inspirational story, incredible talent and infectious smile. The two Sophies (Hahn and Kamlish) established themselves as stars of the future on the track, Olivia Breen and Polly Maton in the sandpit and Kyron Duke in the cage.

That’s not even to mention the plethora of world-class talent on show from the other nations, of which Jason Smyth, Marlou van Rhijn, Akeem Stewart and Tatyana McFadden are to name but a few.

The off-field stats weren’t bad either. More than 80,000 people attended, a third of those creating an electric buzz as they watched Peacock win the T44 100m final. Medallists repeatedly found themselves on the back pages of newspapers and at the forefront of news websites. Millions worldwide tuned in on TV or followed across social media.

Such numbers and figures are certainly impressive but it’s actually a smaller, subtle, cultural shift that marks out just how successful London 2017 was.

It’s the fact that this championship was the one where competitors were recognised as athletes. Not athletes with a disability; just athletes.

It was London 2012 where this transformation began. For the first time, the British public had almost no choice but to take notice of our para-athletes. The exposure those Paralympics received was huge and it opened up minds that had previously shut out any notion of para-sport. No longer was it considered a side-show, an after-event, a fun exhibition. That summer taught us that not only did they take their sport as seriously as their able-bodied counterparts, they were also just as talented.

However, as is always the case, memories of those Games soon faded into the deep depths of the hippocampus as the ‘real sports’ made their return following their summer break. But come Rio 2016, they were soon resurrected as once again we fell in love with our Paralympians.
This time it was different though. Whereas before we were watching many of the athletes for the first time, they now had the pressure of an expectant audience. If they didn’t win people would stop caring, claiming that any success from 2012 was just down to the ‘home advantage’ and, actually, they weren’t very good.

Not only did they silence the doubters, Team GB smashed even their own expectations. They claimed 147 medals in total – 27 more than in London – with 64 of those being gold. That’s nearly double their tally from four years previous. They had done everything they needed to do, answered all the questions put to them and once again won over the British fans.

Yet still some cynics persisted. Rather than focusing on the incredible feats of those who won multiple titles – including triple golds for Cockroft, Sophie Christiansen, Natasha Baker and Bethany Firth – it was claimed that they were only successful because of a lack of competition; it was nothing to do with their skill. The legitimacy of letting athletes with non-visible impairments compete was questioned. There were still some patronising comments about how it was nice to see disabled athletes being allowed to ‘have a go’.

Progress had been made, but there was still a way to go to ensure complete acceptance of para-sport. They still weren’t being taken as seriously by some as they should have been.

In that sense, the timing and setting of the latest Worlds could not have been better. There is no city more willing to accommodate para-athletes than London, few fans more enthusiastic about para-sport than the Brits and certainly no media outlet keener to promote it than Channel 4.

But, even after the first day of action, some were still not convinced. ‘Hurricane Hannah’ stormed to her first gold of the meet in the 100m T34 final, setting a new world record in the process, but comments were still appearing questioning how valid it was due to ‘poor’ opposition.

I was fortunate enough to be in the stadium for the second evening and the atmosphere in the opening stages was slightly strange, bordering on tentative, almost as though those watching didn’t quite know how to react to what they were seeing. A world record from Malaysia’s Muhammad Zolkefli in the F20 shot was greeted with muted applause.

But just an hour and a half later that suddenly changed as Whitehead and Arnold secured victories in the T42 200m and F42 javelin respectively just moments apart. It was as though a switch had been flicked, as though the crowd had suddenly understood that what they were watching was special and realised they were lucky enough to be there to witness it.

That exultation quickly snowballed throughout the nation and didn’t diminish until the championships ended as competitors across the board continued to produce awe-inspiring performances. Fans poured into the Olympic Stadium every session, eclipsing the projected attendance figures. Those who couldn’t attend followed on TV and social media in their masses, relentlessly liking, sharing and commenting on photos and videos, praising the athletes and London for being such fantastic hosts. For once, Twitter was a nice place to be.

Furthermore, the negative comments seemed to completely cease. After that opening day I personally was not privy to anything other than praise and admiration from a number of sources. That’s not to say the critics had been converted though; it’s more likely that they now felt like they should keep their thoughts to themselves for fear of a severe backlash. They knew they were now the minority.

It was this that convinced me change had occurred. Such was the respect and adulation for Cockroft, Peacock, Whitehead etc. that it is now seen as unfathomable that anyone would dare criticise them. They are now held on as high a pedestal than the likes of Jess Ennis-Hill, Greg Rutherford and Eilidh Doyle, people we would not even think of saying a bad word against. They are now seen as their equal.

Whether this becomes a permanent shift or not, only time will tell, but one thing is for certain: London 2017 was the week the Superhumans became the Super-Athletes.

If you want more para-athletics chat then head over to listen to our podcast (link below), where you can hear our interview with wheelchair racing sensation Sammi Kinghorn (Ep 6) or listen to our debate on classifications within the sport (Ep 7)

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