Superheroes often emerge from intense pain and suffering, according to their origin stories.
Jean-Baptiste Alaize was three years old when he witnessed the slaughter of his Tutsi mother at the hands of Hutus during the Burundi Civil War, and he himself fell to four machete blows that resulted in the loss of a leg.
Bebe Vio was eleven years old when she fell in a coma induced by a battle with meningitis, a condition akin to “imploding inside.” A budding fencing star and a ball of energy, the Italian pre-teen had to make the horrible decision to amputate both arms and legs to thwart the advance of the disease.
Tatyana McFadden was born in the Soviet Union with a congenital disorder which paralyzed her from the waist down at birth, in a country that did not officially recognize the existence of disabled people.
However, these three and many others profiled in a recently released Netflix documentary found redemption and achievement in sport. The film, Rising Phoenix, is an impassioned introduction to the Paralympic movement. Layering on top of the powerful theme of Channel 4’s marketing of the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Paralympics – We’re the Superhumans! – Rising Phoenix gives Para athletes the Hollywood superhero treatment.
The production values of Rising Phoenix can be described as lavish. Aussie swimmer Ellie Cole is shot dancing under water, rays of light piercing the dark waters. Alaize sits open and relaxed on a spacious couch in an ornate French Baroque setting. South African sprinter Ntandu Mahlangu is interviewed with an actual cheetah in repose at his own cheetah blades. And Vio is filmed lovingly in slow motion, strapped to a wheelchair, lunging and gyrating to angelic music.
And yet when it comes to recognizing the disabled, Rising Phoenix is the exception. Every superhero has a weakness. For Superman, it is kryptonite. For Para athletes, and people with disabilities, it is apathy.
Rising Phoenix is a tale of Two Paralympics, nearly the best of times and the worst of times for the paramount global event for athletes with disabilities. The 2012 London Paralympics were a triumph of the organizers, an event that packed the stadiums and arenas, energized a city, and inspired the world. The 2016 Rio Olympics, as we learn in the film, nearly ended the Paralympic movement.
Seven weeks before the start of the 2016 Rio Paralympics, then president of the Brazilian Paralympic Committee. Andrew Parsons was given terrible news by the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games – they did not have enough money to run the Paralympic Games.
“Fµ©≤ing hell,” said Sir Philip Craven, then president of the International Paralympic Committee. “There was no money.”
“They are not telling you, we can do that, or we can do that,” said Xavier Gonzalez, CEO of the IPC at that time. “They are telling you we cannot organize the games. I couldn’t at that moment see how we could fix it. And that was scary.”
And as potential Rio Paralympians began to understand that the rumors were true, they had that sinking, familiar feeling from childhood, their teenage years, and still today: unfairness, humiliation, helplessness. Said two-time T-44 men’s 100-meter sprint champion, Jonnie Peacock of Team GB, “you just feel like these people don’t view the Paralympics as anything.”
Parsons explained in exasperation how he could not give clear answers to the national Paralympic committees who worried whether the Games would happen or not. But he and the filmmakers were explicit in explaining who was to blame. Speaking over images of the Rio Olympic Organizing Committee, including chairman Carlos Nuzman, who was subsequently arrested for corruption and bribery, Parsons said, “forget about these guys, the leadership, because they won’t help.”
Rising Phoenix goes on to tell the nail-biting story of how IPC leadership, Parsons, Craven and Gonzalez, convinced the Brazilian government and skeptical authorities to keep this dream alive not only for over 4,300 Para athletes, but also for 24 million persons of disability in Brazil.
The 2012 London Paralympics is held up as the gold standard for awakening the world to the incredible athletic abilities of Para athletes. But it is the 2016 Rio Paralympics that may have saved the movement. Said Craven, “We’d have really broken the cycle. Confidence wouldn’t have been there in the future. It would (have been) the extinguishing of that Paralympic flame.”
Changing the World
Instead, the flame burns brightly today. Rising Phoenix brings alive the power of the movement, and the dreams of these superheroes.
- The incredible story of the movement’s founder, Ludwig Guttman
- The reunification of mother and child as summer Paralympian, Tatyana McFadden wins cross-country silver in the Winter Paralympics in her country of birth, Russia.
- The dramatic and stirring gold medal victory of ebullient Bebe Vio in wheelchair fencing, who carries you on her shoulders in waves of joy.
“No one stays the same after watching the movie,” said Parsons in a recent interview with 20 foreign chambers of commerce in Japan. “If ten people watch the movie, ten people will be changed. If ten million people watch the movie, ten million people will be changed. I want the entire world to watch this movie.”
So do I.
Note: All film poster images shared with permission of the IPC.