September 4, 2012

I intend to show that the art of disability is essentially the same as the art of Olympics, but in each case, that common art leads to very different disciplines. The art of disability cannot lead to the discipline of competition and that is why a disabled person can never become an Olympian.

Our bodies function in the balance between ‘tension and compression’. We use conscious effort to contract muscles and create ‘tensional forces’ in the muscular skeletal system. In order for these forces to operate body movement they rely on the quality of the joints and the core volume of the trunk. It is this intrinsic structure and its ‘resistance to compression’ which provides the foundation for these movements. Tension and compression are polar opposites; one cannot exist without the other. Without tension in the muscles there can be no compression to resist and without resistance to compression there is no structure upon which to create tension, so we can neither live purely in tension nor purely in compression. We can only live in the balance between the two.

All able bodied people have the ability to maintain this balance. In the animal kingdom nature ensures this balance, but in humans there is another dimension and this balance does not necessarily come naturally. Some maintain it better than others and those that do have the potential to become Olympians. Training through physical effort builds up the muscles and so the ability to create the tension, but in a well balanced body it also works up effectively into the higher structure and builds that resistance to compression. Modern sports science concentrates solely on the conscious use of muscles to perfect the use of the body and the building up of the higher structure largely eludes them, but nonetheless it is built up and the balance is maintained. The maintenance of this balance is critical to the perfection of the human form and so is fundamental to the ‘art of Olympics’.

Disabled people, by the very nature of disability, have weakness in the system of their physical body. However you perceive the root cause of the weakness, it manifests itself both in a lack of resistance to compression and a lack of ability in muscular tension. As I have pointed out, one cannot exist without the other and so a weakness in one reflects the weakness in the other. The ‘art of disability’ is to live well with a body that is less than nature intended by seeking to maintain the balance between tension and compression and learning to live within the limits of capability as defined by the intrinsic weakness. So the art of disability is based upon the same principles as the art of Olympics.

The pros and cons of disabled people entering into sporting activities is not the issue here; the point I am making is that when a disabled person enters into competition to be the fastest, go the furthest or lift the heaviest, they veer away from this art of maintaining balance. In order to beat the rest you inevitably have to push yourself through conscious effort, but because there is a weakness in the resistance to compression which prevents efficient use of muscular tension, conscious effort can only be employed, to such extent, at the expense of your own physical capacity. In order to explain this, let me look at an extreme example. Paraplegia is a condition of paralysis from the waist (or chest) down which is reflected in severely depleted intrinsic capacity, leaving little foundation upon which to base the remaining muscular capacity of the upper body. Someone who decides to become a wheelchair racer has to find a way to use their upper body muscle capacity despite the lack of foundation upon which to base it, so they disregard their bodies lack of resistance to compression and compress it regardless. By crunching up their bodies and jamming them into a wheeled contraption, they create a foundation upon which to base the use of their arms to propel the racing wheelchair, but this is not a true foundation of strength. The foundation does not exist as the capacity of the body, but exists at the expense of the body’s capacity. Such an activity will seriously compress the already weakened structure of their bodies way beyond that body’s capacity to resist compression, leading to further degradation of intrinsic capacity. This is neither the art of disability nor the art of Olympics.

There are always exceptions to the rule and in the case of the South African sprinter who has both legs amputated below the knee, he was able, as a disabled person, to become a true Olympian in the mainstream event. The clever use of prosthetics has enabled him to compensate for the loss of limbs and still maintain that balance between tension and compression. The question as to whether or not his prosthetics give him a mechanical advantage is a debate I will steer clear of, but the fact remains that he has managed to compete with the best in the world and that is true equality. The British cyclist who uses a prosthetic hand to enable her to compete with the top class riders only narrowly missed being selected for the Olympic team, as I’m sure did many able bodied cyclists, but unlike them her disability gave her a ticket to become an Olympian despite missing selection. This is not the equality that disabled people have spent years campaigning for.

There has been a great deal of talk about the ‘Olympic spirit’ and there is certainly a way that leads to the gentlemanly nature of competition. We can also talk of the spirit that leads someone to excel in their discipline. Bringing disabled people together in sporting games creates a spirit that enables them to overcome adversity, but that is very different from the Olympic spirit. Then there is ‘strength of spirit’. I, as a paraplegic, often sit crossed legged so as to provide the best basis upon which to support my trunk. I will attain to posture through conscious muscular effort and then relax that effort to bring in the resistance to compression, which in a damaged body is always in danger of being overridden by muscular effort. In doing so I arrive at the cusp in that balance between tension and compression and that is where we find a strength of spirit; a higher resource that wells from within. As a disabled person you must find that strength in stillness. The more you employ muscular effort, the more you stray from the balance and the more that strength of spirit will elude you. Only those with a wholesome body can find that spirit in physical exertion. Disabled people will find only brute force and ignorance in the physical exertion necessary to compete.

When Dr. Guttman began the Paralympics in 1948 it was the Paraplegic Olympics and was conceived as a way of bringing paraplegics together in light hearted games in order to help them find the strength to make a go of life despite their injuries. It was an enormously successful approach and thanks to his endeavour people could not only live, for the first time, following such an injury, but could find a way to flourish. I do not believe that Dr. Guttman ever intended these games to rise up to be on a par with the Olympics and by celebrating them at such a level and by elevating disabled people to the status of Olympians, we are in grave danger of creating ‘freak show’.


  1. As you know I very much enjoy your blog, you are knowledgeable and eloquent about your condition and the work you put in to improve your body. However, I will have to disagree with you, to a degree, on this 🙂

    I understand your point and certainly from a bio-mechanical perspective I don’t doubt your science, but to me, being an Olympian is a combination of many factors. Naturally the physical aspect is paramount, able-bodied and disabled athletes alike pushing themselves physically to compete and achieve. However the psychological and intellectual components are of ever increasing importance and to be an Olympian is more than being the fastest or the strongest.

    The rise of sports psychologists in recent years highlights the increased awareness of this emotional and intellectual bearing.
    To the common man there is an awe towards the physical achievements of Olympians, but it is the stories and the fight against adversity that we take to our hearts. The stories of loss or illness, the triumph of the underdog and the sheer force of will that pushes the few to achieve is what we find truly inspirational. The vast majority of us are hugely aware of our own physical limitations and do not aspire to become Olympic Athletes, but when we hear stories of people fighting against what life throws at them, that is when we can be uplifted and that is the Olympic spirit that can change lives.

    From Judo’s 25 year old Silver Medallist Sarah Gibbons who lost her mum when she was just 17 to Martine Wright, made a double amputee by the London 7/7 bombings, is now representing her country in Seated Volleyball. To me, these are the true Olympic stories.

    So, as with all things, it is a matter of perspective, but from my humble perspective the spirit of being an Olympian is all encompassing and there is certainly no freak show in sight.
    x x

  2. @Emma,
    I care for a severely disabled 26 year old 24/7 and have been into ABR with him since 2002. I find nothing inspiring about the Olympics nor the Paralympics …it features the elite, the super accomplished and “heroes” of physical, psychologican and intellectual proweress; none of which my son could ever demonstrate. He is not the elite, but in another sense he is the elite. I am not inspired by the super heroes, disabled nor able…because they are not reflective of real life.
    RE: the paralympics, I am appalled that the organizers would allow ATOS to be a primary sponsor…that fact in itself is appalling as ATOS is a bona fide freak show,.

  3. Hi Phil, I understand, and completely (and genuinely) respect your perspective. It is however, exactly that, our perspectives. It doesn’t mean that I dont support yours, and indeed yours arguable comes from a more ‘valid’ place than mine. But what I am trying to demonstrate is that the perspective of the majority comes from a place nearer mine than yours. That is to say that the majority do not experience first hand what you and yours have to endure. And for them to see ‘disabled’ people achieving heights that they themselves cannot, can only be a good thing.

    I have various ailments that are not akin to severe disability but certainly set me well outside any athletisim and have done all my life. I don’t watch the Olympics with an air of seperatism, I take from it the stories that which I choose. If I found no inspiration in watching them, then I would not.. and I support your choice to do so. But instead I choose to watch Olympian and Paralympians and take from them a wish to do better, to achieve more, to stop complaining about the little things and to step up.

    That is not to diminish yours, or people in your positions standpoint, your son is inspirational to you and arguably would be to others, undoubtedly to me, but he is not in the media. And I’m afriad to improve the knowledge of the common man this needs to be in a public domain. I dont agree that the success of others needs to belittle our own triumphs, the majority are not subjected to the battles your family face on a daily basis, so if a little of the fight can be transmitted into their living rooms in a positive nature, this is surely a good thing?

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