by Shane Thomas 

I’m sure you’ve heard of the African aphorism (used to the point of such cliche that one sometimes questions its origins), “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Well, in the Paralympics, get you an athlete who can do both.

One of the standout events of the athletics portion of the Games are the T11 (visually impaired) sprints, where the sprinter in question is attached (normally by the wrist) to a guide, who is there to offset the sprinters lack of sight.

While the natural speed of the athlete is crucial, of equal importance is the way they collaborate with their guide. It was meant as a flippant joke, but Channel 4’s The Last Leg has a point when they quipped that you couldn’t attach Usain Bolt to a toddler and expect it to win T11 races.

The athlete’s power is nothing without rhythm, not just their own, but also their guide’s. It’s a space where great teammwork will often surpass individual aptitude. To succeed, the sprinter needs a guide that they implicitly trust, with an understanding and symbiosis that is almost preternatural. Think of this dynamic much like the ones that have existed between great musicians: Prince and Sheila E.; Mick Jagger and Keith Richards; or Sam Moore and Dave Prater.

When Brazilian superstar Terezinha Guilhermina was disqualified for a false start in Tuesday’s T11 200 metres final, one wonders if a slight miscommunication with her guide – allied with her desire to make a fast start – contributed to her leaving the starting blocks too early?

The T11 competition provides the watching audience with a teachable moment. The lesson doesn’t come from the Paralympians, though. They’re far too busy focusing on delivering excellence to educate able-bodied people out of our ignorance, and rightly so. In a rum way, it’s actually the guide that many of us can learn from.

It’s probable you hadn’t heard of the T11 sprinters competing in Rio. It’s a certainty you hadn’t heard of their guides. Which is as it should be. The thing that must be noted is that these races are an example of someone with greater socialised privilege uplifting someone with less.

But this isn’t charity. The T11 athlete still has to do the proverbial heavy lifting. The guide’s purpose is to ensure their sprinter can display the athletic gifts that they already possess. The case of Libby Clegg is instructive, as she won gold in both the T11 100 and 200 metres. After her victory in the 100, her guide – Chris Clarke – jokingly compared his role in the partnership to being like “John Terry”[1].

david_brown_usaEven though that’s not wholly accurate – Clarke’s responsibilities, as with any guide, are akin to that of a navigator – it was correct that he shift the praise away from himself. The people we should be focusing on are the likes of Clegg, Guilhermina, and David Brown. The identity of the guides should be nothing more than a really difficult pub quiz question.

I’ve never been fully comfortable with the term “ally”[2], but it’s the most apt word I can think of in this context. What we’ve seen in Rio should strike a chord with anyone possessing privilege who wants to contribute to making the world more just. It means being a willing supplicant, assisting those who would be otherwise ignored, and doing so not for credit, commendations, or cookies. The prosperity of the oppressed should be reward enough.

I wrote on Thursday about the singular greed needed for sporting greatness, but part of what makes the T11 discipline so interesting is that it can be metaphorically read in a way that’s a great deal more nourishing for the spirit. It’s taken the individualism inherent in sprinting, and remade it into a triumph of collectivism and cooperation. It’s a motif that runs throughout the Paralympics[3], which shows the rest of the world a different way that elite sport can be performed.

Consider how many areas of life where the talented are never given a fair chance to display their gifts, simply down to socialised inequity. Even though it operates on an interpersonal level, rather than a structural one, the T11 races are a salutary lesson in genuine allyship: something many of us would do well to heed.

[1] – For those who aren’t aware, Clarke didn’t invoke Terry for his ubiquity as Chelsea’s captain, his parking in a disabled-only space, or his FA charge for committing racist abuse. Clarke was referring to Terry’s penchant for celebrating in triumphs that didn’t involve him.

[2] – Much like the term “diversity”, it’s not the word that’s the problem, but the way it’s been exploited for self-serving purposes.

[3] – This is also evident in the boccia and rowing, which are mixed gender competitions.

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“Two Weeks Notice” is Shane Thomas’s bi-monthly column encompassing Pop culture to sport, and back again“ Shortlisted for EI Arts, Culture and Entertainment commentator of the year 2015

Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).

olympics - Media DversifiedThere’s sport, and then there’s the Olympic and Paralympic Games. It’s an event like no other. Over the next few weeks this series, curated by Shane Thomas, will cover the medals, the nationalism, the competition, the corporatisation, the exploitation, and the sporting brilliance of Rio 2016.

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