Sporting Life

Games prompt profound conversations about spirit and sport

Change is defined by two nervous boys standing next to a man in a wheelchair. Change is two kids nudging each other in a lift last week in Block 700A in Ang Mo Kio. You ask, says one. No, you ask, says the other. What they want to know is if the man in the wheelchair is going to the Paralympics.

The man is Eric Ting and he laughs as he tells me this story. He's 44, has been to the Paralympic Games in 2008 but not this time. He's a tetraplegic, an MRT-riding, easy-smiling, table-tennis playing, one-time wheelchair racer who is happy the kids know he can play sport, too. It confirms he's an accidental sporting missionary in a chair, an unchained spirit who's advertising what is possible on wheels.

The kids probably saw Ting on TV one year and maybe you should watch his tribe in Rio this month. Watch not because this is some bleeding heart Games but because it's sometimes just a bleeding-shin Games (ever seen the wheelchair basketballers collide?).

Watch because it's fascinating how they negotiate their sporting world. Even Ting, participant once and spectator now, will say: "You'll be amazed at what people with disabilities can still do in life." Look at Laurentia Tan, who is profoundly deaf and yet rides a horse in perfect time to music. Look even at Ting, who wears a catheter, takes hours to get ready in the morning and yet spends his Mondays crashing into other wheelchairs in rugby.

Watch not because it's the right thing to do, but because it's the sporting thing to do. Because after years of speaking to Yip Pin Xiu, who breaks world records even as her body weakens, and watching the path-finding Theresa Goh, the swimmer with spina bifida, I'm not surprised they're doing something marvellously athletic because, well, they are marvellous athletes.

Even if they race wheelchairs down a mall, they want to win. They're competitors, they get nervous, they train, they hurt, they fall off horses, they're tough. No, better than that, they're able.

Across Asia, we need to reflect on the idea of inclusion, debate how well we share a space with the differently abled, introspect on compassion and reconsider what we might incorrectly presume they cannot do.

Watch because even if it's hard to imitate them, we can draw from them. Not every able-bodied person becomes an Olympian, not every disabled person becomes a Paralympian. Talent has a say in that; so does interest. But we can be entertained and yet educated, we can mine these related Games for lessons that go beyond a field. "The hope," says Ting, "is for people to feel they can do much more, not just in sport."

From the stubbornness of the ageing Olympian perhaps you, greying and older, find an encouragement to live a positive life. From the resilience of the Paralympian perhaps a young boy in a wheelchair finds just enough courage to break out of his shyness to go downstairs for a ride. Even the smallest change is progress; even the smallest struggle undertaken is a triumph.

Watch the Paralympics because when we do, it opens up wider conversations about the disabled. It's as if the Games make us see and acknowledge a world that is invisible to most of us. In a perfect world these conversations wouldn't cease when a Games end, yet any moment of thoughtfulness matters in an increasingly self-absorbed planet.

Across Asia, we need to reflect on the idea of inclusion, debate how well we share a space with the differently abled, introspect on compassion and reconsider what we might incorrectly presume they cannot do. "It's a good moment," says Ting, "to activate a wider perspective of people with disability. In the Asian context they sometimes think people with disability can't earn a living or do much."

Watch the Paralympics with your kids and be ready to answer, for they will ask with a beautiful innocence the most honest questions. A man has no arms. How come, dad? How does he swim, mum? How does he manage life? "They come straight to the point," says Ting, "and it's a good time for parents to educate them in the right way."

From such conversations arrive awareness and from awareness is bred a necessary empathy in both adult and child. Gemma Rose Foo, the rider with cerebral palsy who was bullied as a child, heartbreakingly told a colleague that in school she "found a notebook once with terrible stuff about me written in it and a drawing of a broken leg. (The bullies) even told me I wasn't going to live long". It is a cruelty only born of ignorance.

Watch the Games simply because all of us, as human beings, have a great distance to go. We can do as Yip does, which is still refine her technique. We can do as Ting does, which is start a new, full-contact sport at 44. We can try and do, on fields and beyond, what so many Paralympians somehow do every single day: Meet an obstacle, armed with will.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2016, with the headline 'Games prompt profound conversations about spirit and sport'. Print Edition | Subscribe