Superhero Movie

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.

Rising Rio

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.

“I was supposed to be in Tokyo today, rehearsing my opening speech,” said Andrew Parsons wistfully.

It was a little after 8pm on Monday, August 24, 2020 Japan time. Parsons, the President of the International Paralympics Committee (IPC), was addressing members of 20 foreign chambers of commerce in Japan in a Zoom meeting. The event marked one year to go for the Tokyo2020 Paralympics.

The Paralympics would have kicked off in Japan on Tuesday, August 25, 2020 if not for the devastating and global impact of COVID-19 virus. It was March 24, 2020 when the fateful decision was made to postpone both the Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics for a year. “That decision was not taken lightly, but it was the right one,” said Parsons. “Had the games been tomorrow, there’s no chance they would have happened.”

Putting the Puzzle Back Together

March 24 brought devastating news to the organizers in Japan. Yasushi Yamawaki, IPC Governing Board Member at Large and Tokyo 2020 Vice President said they were more than surprised.

“When the decision was made to postpone the games, most of the staff and partners, were very much shocked. They had spent seven years putting together the biggest and most complicated jigsaw puzzle. And with a few pieces to go, they were told to start over again.”

There are dozens of major sponsors, over 180 National Paralympic Committees, dozens of international sports federations, and thousands of athletes who had questions. But for the IPC, a huge question that had to be answered was how to ensure funding for Tokyo2020 in 2021. As Craig Spence, IPC Chief Brand & Communications Officer, explained, it was critical to re-do the contracts with the broadcasters first.

“From an IPC point of view, we had to review 300 contracts in the space of two weeks. We have TV contracts with 165 broadcasters. Each contract needed to be reviewed. And each contract impacted the cash flow of the IPC for 2020 because we were due money this year, but the TV contract was then moved to next year.”

And Parsons reminded everybody that this incredibly complex and urgent work had to be done in the challenging environment of a pandemic. “We had to manage our cash flow,” said Parsons. “But we also needed to work with our staff all over the world, many of whom were living away from their families during the most demanding period ever for the IPC.”

Parsons is hopeful, but he is realistic. He said that everything that can be done, that can be controlled, will be. Planning will continue through the end of September. The IPC will focus on countermeasures to COVID-19 in the last quarter of 2020, and then will enter operational readiness in the first quarter of 2021. After that, important decisions will have to be made.

“We still have one year to go. We will follow the development of the pandemic. Unfortunately, none of us have a crystal ball. We have to work as if the Games are going ahead. This is the tricky part – how to work towards something you don’t know 100% is going ahead or not. But at the moment we are working full speed ahead preparing for the Games as if they are happening.”

The postponement resulted in a re-planning process that prioritized two things: the safety and health of the athletes and an approach to budgeting only what is necessary, a sustainability mindset that can be applied to future Paralympics, something that Parsons calls the Principles. “In these principles, the safety of athletes Is the number 1 priority for us,” said Parsons. “Everything that is not fundamental for the Games will be downscaled or cut.”

No Question of the Tokyo2020 Legacy

The Paralympics were postponed for a year. But Tokyo2020 is already establishing a legacy in Japan. Yamawaki explained that Tokyo is one of the most accessible cities in the world for the disabled, and that the media showcases the capabilities and personalities of the Para athletes almost on a daily basis.

Spence shared comparative data showing the impact of the run-up to the Games.

“In the build up to London 2012 with 18 months to go, less than 1% of the British population could name a Paralympian, and everyone sees London as the benchmark. In Tokyo last year, 45% of the Japanese population could recognize Shingo Kunieda, the wheelchair tennis player. So that shows the real difference in interest. In terms of accessible transport, I think when Tokyo won the right to stage the Games, around 75% of the city’s metro stations were accessible. By the time the Games happen next year, that’s going to be at 99%. That would never have happened had it not been for the Paralympics coming to Tokyo. The legacies are going to be tremendous.” 

Yamawaki oversees the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center, which is driving a groundbreaking education program in Japan’s school system. The IPC’s “I’mPossible” program – a toolkit of resources designed to engage 6-12 year old students about the Paralympic movement – is being pioneered in Japan with great success. Yamawaki said that this program has been delivered to 36,000 primary and secondary schools across Japan.

Children can learn from this unique learning opportunity,” said Yamawaki. “They will become future leaders in creating an inclusive society in this country after the Paralympics are over. It’s going to be one of the biggest legacies. Usually the parents teach the children, but in the I’mPossible program, kids teach the parents. This will increase parents’ awareness of the Paralympic Games and Paralympic sports. That’s the biggest impact we’re seeing.”

What You Can Do

Here are a few suggestions from IPC leaders on what we all can do to support the Paralympics broadly, and people with disabilities specifically.

Employ Persons with Disabilities: If your company does not employ persons with disabilities, it should. If your office is not set up to deal with people in wheelchairs, put in ramps. If you have a restaurant or a canteen, make your menus available in braille, or put your information on the internet so that people with disabilities can more easily access the information.

See the Opportunity: As Spence explained, before he joined the IPC, he didn’t realize people with disabilities are such great problem solvers.

“People with disabilities face challenges on a daily basis. They don’t tend to moan. They don’t just sit around thinking I can’t get around this. They always find innovative ways to get around and beat the challenge. They can bring a whole new creativity and new outlook to your business.”

Go See the Games: Seeing the Para athletes in action will change your attitude for life. Get as many people around you to see the Games.

“There’s very few people in the world who can run 100 meters in under 10.5 seconds,” said Spence. “Yet we have athletes with prosthetic legs and running blades who can do it in 10.4 seconds. It really does challenge perceptions towards disability.”

See my review for Rising Phoenix.
Rising Phoenix: The Stirring Netflix Documentary on the Paralympic Movement that Seeks to Change the World

Bethany Woodward

Bethany Woodward is a silver medalist in the 200 Meters (T37) sprint at the 2012 London Paralympics. She continued her career as a para-athlete, but has become disillusioned about the state of para-athletic competition. The Ringwood, England native made news recently for returning a silver medal won in a competition several years ago, not because she cheated, but because a person on her relay team was not disabled enough.

In this fascinating audio report from the BBC, entitled Paralympic Sport – Fair Play?, Woodward was interviewed regarding the growing issue of “classification cheating.”

The reporter explained that Woodward is classified as a T-37 sprinter. “T” stands for “track,” while 37 is a degree of disability. The lower the number, the greater the impairment. The purpose of the classification system is to create an equal playing field for the competitors. But either because of the challenge of classifying disabilities or purposely interpreting the criteria for a certain classification broadly, athletes can see inequities.

Reporter: Volunteers classify athletes based on how their disability impacts their performance, not on the disability itself. They look at the medical paperwork and the doctor or the physiotherapist does tests. Then a technical classifier, a sports scientist or a coach, for example, will assess the athlete. They’re also watched in competition before their classification is confirmed. Bethany Woodward said after the 2012 Paralympics, the make-up of her class seemed to change.

Woodward: In London there was no one in my classification I thought shouldn’t be there. But then suddenly classes were seemed to be opening up. I have hardly any dorsiflexion in it, or none. And within the criteria for cerebral palsy it said that you shouldn’t have any dorsiflexion . And then there was people coming who had dorsiflexion and I could see that when they were warming up.

Reporter: In other words, they could bend their foot.

Woodward: Yeah, they could bend their foot. So there were physical elements you could see that they were definitely a lot stronger in different areas than you. My cerebral palsy isn’t something that will fluctuate at all. And then you have people coming in who have a medical condition that really fluctuates. One day they could be absolutely fine and one day they are not OK. And we can’t ask for medical evidence because that is something deemed confidential.

When asked why she returned her medal, Woodward explained that nothing has changed since she first raised the issues. “Nothing has changed in a year. There was nothing I could do to fix it, but I can make I can step away with a clear conscience, a voice. In handing that medal back really closes the book for me – I did everything I could for this sport.”

Olivia Breen
Olivia Breen

Olivia Breen is a long jumping champion who has cerebral palsy and learning difficulties, and who went to Rio and made it to the finals of the T-38 100-meter finals. According to her father, Michael Breen, one of Olivia’s competitors had relapsing MS, which he felt was unfair when compared to athletes with cerebral palsy like his daughter, because their condition could be in remission at the time of the race, or controlled by drugs. He also claimed that another finalist objected to being classified at all.

What followed in the report was an insightful exchange that speak to the challenges of differentiating subtle differences in conditions.

Reporter: I’ve read interviews with athletes whose impairments have been questioned before an d they say, frankly it’s insulting for people to say that about me. They don’t know my medical history so you don’t know for sure what is or isn’t affection that particular athlete’s performance.

Michael Breen: That’s a really good point. I’m not going to try to justify every person who’s queried someone’s disability because it’s not possible. What I’m saying is, there is something fundamentally wrong with classification. It’s not fit for purpose and it’s broken.