A New England

I’m a woman of strong opinion. It doesn’t always win me friends. But if you can’t stand the heat, move away from the opinionated woman. Actually, I’m being flippant; I’m certain there is more than one gender studies thesis on why women with opinions are given a hard time, but here is not the time nor the place.

If you are a regular reader, you know I’m prone to grand statement. Especially here where I can indulge in the written word.

But I have to tell you something.

I made a grand statement on this very blog only a matter of weeks ago, and I am here to tell you I spoke without fully thinking it through.

I was wrong.

If I had thought it through, I would have remembered this extraordinary man.

Alcino Pereira was part of East Timor’s first team at the Sydney Paralympics in 2000. The photo was taken as Alcino took part in the T38 cerebral palsy 5000m. With apologies for the quality of the scan, but this is what the article above says.

After 20 metres, it was clear little Alcino Pereira was going to run last. After 50 metres he was a certainty to be lapped. And he was, several times in fact. But it didn’t stop East Timor’s only track athete from winning the loudest and longest applause heard so far at the Olympic Stadium as he shuffled crab-like through last night’s T38 cerebral palsy 5000m.

It wasn’t so much that the 42 year old Pereira was from East Timor, although there was plenty of politically correct warmth in the crowds for that. And it wasn’t so much that people remembered how Pereira had arrived in Australia at the start of the Games with nothing but an empty bag and the clothes on his back. It was more a case of Pereira being so hopelessly out of his depth that he was magnificent.
The further he got behind, the more the crowd cheered.
They cheered louder when Pereira sporadically attempted his version of sprinting in a game bid to keep up with passing runners. When Spain’s Ivan Hompanero crossed the line to win gold in the 12 and a bit lap event, Pereira still had five to go.
Hompanero had broken the world record but nobody cared about that. All they wanted was for Pereira to complete the race and most likely he’d have done the job had they let him go on. But with other track events still to take place, and with Pereira now making the odd stop to better appreciate the accolades, a track official at the top bend finally called a halt.
But this was an intrusion that immediately drew the displeasure of the assembled. A storm of boos and jeers echoed around the stadium and Pereira’s disappointment was visible to all.
It subsided and turned to cheers again only when a savvy official ran to Pereira and presented him with a bouquet of the flowers usually reserved for medalists. Pereira took them and was allowed to shuffle up the home straight one last time. It was the appropriate finale for a truly great race.
David Nason, The Weekend Australian, October 28-29, 2000

Through no grand design of my own, I was in the stadium that night. I sat and then stood in that stadium, along with a couple of thousand other spectators, and clapped and cheered this fabulous athlete as he put one foot in front of the other, and crossed the finish line. And yes, I bawled my way through it.

And contrary to Mr Nason’s assertions that Mr Pereira was cheered on because he was “hopelessly out of his depth”, I cheered because Alcino Pereira embodied what we tell ourselves and our children when they play sport; it’s not about winning or losing, but about how you play the game.

So when I said I never learned anything about myself by watching a man run a race, I was wrong. Watching Mr Pereira run that race is one of the most incredible moments I’ve had and I get emotional just thinking about it. And I’d like to apologise, not just to Alcino Pereira, but to all the Paralympic Athletes, who’s work I diminished by being a smart arse.

Since last Thursday’s opening ceremony, ABC2 has been the place to be. (And I love my ABC, who know how to cover sports with heart, respect and irreverence).

I’ve seen Zheng Tao, an extraordinary Chinese swimmer, freestyle with no arms. Here he is, on the right, collecting his bronze medal for the Men’s 50m Freestyle, S6.

Tonight I watched Marlou van Rhijn, from Holland break the world record for running 200m, with no feet. That record is 26.97 seconds. Here she is collecting the silver medal for running 100m.

And I’ve had my heart broken by this little fella, who not only makes me proud to live in a country where we welcome – with open arms – people from other places who want a better life, but dumbfounds me with what a human being can achieve when they really want something.

I am driving my neighbours bonkers with yelling and screaming and cheering. And while I love that our athletes are doing us proud, I’m just cheering for everyone. Because it’s impossible not to watch the Paralympics without leaping to your feet and screaming. And because the Paralympics truly embodies what we’re told as kids; it’s how you play the game that counts.