There’s a film called Murderball that came out a few years ago. It centres on the American and Canadian wheelchair rugby sides in the build-up to, and competing in, the Athens 2004 Paralympics. The sport is brutal, hence its nickname, and is as viciously fast and compelling as any on legs.
Murderball is mostly brilliant, with the caveat “mostly” inserted because it’s co-produced by MTV Films – who seem to have a clause inserted into all of their films that says, “You must play that song by the Moldy Peaches at least once. You know the one, ‘Anyone Else But You’. We always use it when the underdog comes back from adversity.” It is the kind of song that an MTV producer would call “kooky”, and probably “underground”. It is trite, insipid rubbish, and tailor made for the kind of person who becomes a producer at MTV Films.
Anyway, Murderball manages to avoid most of the hair-ruffling, haven’t-you-done-well-despite-your-lack-of-legs-isms commonly used about disabled sport. It paints a picture of two groups of insanely driven blokes, who are both macho and childish, as well as being fiercely competitive, foul mouthed and pig-headed. The point being that they are just athletes, like any other.
Just because they are in wheelchairs, just because their arms are in varying degrees of disfunctionality, just because they look a bit different, they don’t want your misplaced sympathy. They masturbate, are arrogant and hold grudges like we do. They are allowed to be arseholes, and to suggest that they are particularly brave is not only demeaning, but patronising in the extreme.
This is important, and one of the reasons that the Paralympics were conceived in 1948 in Stoke Mandeville Hospital in the first place (sadly, one that is all too often forgotten in the character driven morass of human interest stories that gush into the already piss-filled bedpan of sentimentality that is the Olympic movement).
This diatribe is not meant to suggest that one should gloss over the Paralympics in our efforts not to patronise, but merely to say that it should be ranked alongside the main event itself. It is not meant to demean the efforts of the Paralympians either – for there are undoubtedly stories there that are heroic. There are in both forms of the games.
One of these stories is that of a German sportswoman, a Berlinerin no less, who should be held up alongside Beckenbauer on and off the pitch, Schmeling in and out of the ring or Becker on and off the court. She competes in her wheelchair, but her story isn’t really about it. This story is called Marianne Buggenhagen: Sporting Legend.
As the games kick off next week, Buggenhagen will know exactly what is needed of her to succeed. She will be able to lead the German team by example; she will be able to lead the German team by deed – for Marianne Buggenhagen is at the moment training in London in preparation for her sixth consecutive Paralympics. Marianne Buggenhagen is not one whose hair should be ruffled, and be mollycoddled with well-worn platitudes. Indeed, were she not so cool, she could happily tear your patronising arm out of its patronising socket and stick it up your patronising arse.
Marianne Buggenhagen has won nine Paralympic gold medals, she is 59 years old, and can still throw a javelin further than you.
In her class of disability she holds four world records, one each in the shot put, javelin, pentathlon and discus. Her record of 27.80m in the discus may be under half the existing throw for non-hindered athletes, set by her former compatriot of the GDR, Gabriele Reinsch, but it is worth remembering that she was doing this sitting down. Her 9.06 record in the shot, set in Athens whilst the Canadians and Americans were battling it out in the wheelchair rugby, is just under half of that thrown by Jessica Ennis in her gold medal winning pentathlon this year. But Marianne didn’t have a run up like Ennis. She was also already over 50 years old.
Buggenhagen has two schools named after her in Berlin, and has devoted her life to helping kids with disabilities achieve just as she has done. It is almost as if her quadriplegia was more of an opening for her sporting ambitions, than it was a hindrance to them – she played volleyball with distinction for the GDR until at 23 she lost the use of her legs.
When she says in her autobiography: “At first I hated, feared and cursed my wheelchair, but my life became full of colour again. It was a liberation, a salvation,” she echoes the sentiments of the Canadian wheelchair rugby player, Mark Zupan, who says stridently why he takes part in the Paralympics, "I don't win at what I do to get at hug at the end of it. I do it to win a fucking medal."
Bare this in mind as you watch the Paralympics, as you revel in the competition and ignore the inevitable hair-ruffling of the commentators, desperate to cover their own squeamish lack of insight. This is different to the Special Olympics, precisely because the athletes don’t want to be seen as special. That Marianne Buggenhagen is special is a coincidence. Her chair has nothing to do with it.