Russia is getting its fair share of attention at the moment. Not too long ago there was the Pussy Riot incident (girls locked up for singing anti-Government songs in a church). Then there’s the recent Anti-Homosexuality Propaganda laws that were passed by Vladimir Putin (to protect the children, apparently). And of course now there’s civil unrest in Ukraine and Crimea with Russia strongly at the helm. Perhaps an alleged comment by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel recently sums up what’s really going on with the Russian President – “He’s living in another world.”
But then there’s the Winter Olympics – arguably one of the most watched (certainly most covered) winter olympics of all time. Getty Images have been on the case 24/7 and their Twitter feed, Facebook account and website are just full of blogs, facts, figures, and pictures. At the time, the current problems in Ukraine were barely smouldering, but athletes still had a hard choice to make when deciding to go to Sochi. Many sports personalities and members of the media around the world chose to boycott the event based on the new propaganda laws, whilst others chose to express their lack of support for the country’s radical new bill in more inventive ways. Canada’s and Norway’s stood out in particular.
With the Paralympics now in full swing, I can’t imagine how difficult is must be for the athletes to make that decision to compete. On one hand they’re indirectly supporting a nation that has chosen to undemocratically march in to a country that has expressed a desire to become part of Europe, whilst on the other hand they’ve been training for years and in exceptional circumstances, so who could blame them for seeing it through to the end.
Yesterday I heard an interview with British gold medallist Kelly Gallagher, who won the visually-impaired super-G (super giant slalom) along with her guide, Charlotte Evans. During the interview she explained exactly how someone who is registered blind can find their way down a mountain at such speeds, and it’s all through verbal communication. Evans barks orders at Gallagher through a two-way radio located in Kelly’s helmet and tells her exactly when to turn, when to brake and when to speed up. Just sit back for a second and soak that up. When was the last time you allowed someone to guide you whist you had your eyes closed? You can’t help but keep your hands out and step carefully, expecting to bump in to a chair or something. One of my scuba diving lessons involved putting a piece of black bin-liner inside my mask and then doing two lengths of the pool. All I had to guide me was the grout between the tiles and when I was finished I had a bad cramp in my wrist. So screaming down a mountain blindfolded just seems like suicide to me. Check out the video of Kelly’s success and see for yourself.
With all this in mind, it takes me back to winter 2006, when I was living in Chamonix in the French Alps. It was hard enough learning how to snowboard, as my coxis, thighs, and stomach kept reminding me. But then one day, whilst cruising down the backside of Le Tour, a man came whizzing past on a pair of skis. But he was no ordinary skier and they were no ordinary skis. Everyone on the slope just stopped what they were doing and watched him as he glided past. I grabbed my camera as quickly as I could and snapped him going over the brow of the slope before he disappeared. He was a crippled skier and was therefore sitting in a specially-made seat, but apart from that obvious fact he was moving along just like everybody else. I was genuinely in awe.
Sadly, at the bottom of the run someone had decided that it would be a great idea to build a snowdrift and the only way through it was via a small cleft that someone had calved. By the time I approached, the skier was just squeezing through, but it meant having to take everything off to do so. I think I complained more than he did.
For some reason, I feel like the Winter Paralympic Games is being watched by less people than its Winter Olympics predecessor, which is odd considering some of the feats that are being accomplished. It’s an area of achievement that we should all be proud of and is a testament to our ability to succeed and work together in adverse circumstances. I wonder what Putin is really thinking as he watches real human beings with pride, emotion and determination. Does he see these things, or does he see something else? So far, Russia’s Paralympic athletes are sitting at the top of the medals table – a place all countries should strive to be. I hope their bravery, unique talents and passion inspire those Russians who aren’t in the arena.