Sport has an innate power to move me, be it rugby, curling, triathlon or rowing. I live and breathe it. But there is perhaps no more moving or more powerful a spectacle than the Paralympic Games. The message it delivers transcends who beat who, or who won the most gold medals. It transcends that mundane minutiae of sport; it is transformative and life-changing, a truly inclusive event which pushes the boundaries of what we thought was humanly possible.
In Rio, I was right on the finish line for the road cycling events to commentate and present the action to the crowds in Pontal. It was an honour to witness these superhumans at their very best. It was with heart pounding and a lump in my throat that I commentated on Sarah Storey’s 13th and 14th gold medal. It was the same as I witnessed Alessandro Zanardi, 15 years to the day since the horror CART crash in which both his legs were amputated on impact, win a silver medal and say his life was a “never-ending privilege”. It left me breathless.
I was humbled to be a small part of one of the greatest sporting events on the planet.
But while we celebrated the power of the human spirit and the ability to overcome adversity, we were reminded so starkly of the fragility of it all, on the final day of the road cycling competition.
Cycling is beautiful, raw, brutal and visceral. The agony of defeat and the ecstasy of victory are laid bare for all to see. Losing a bike race is inevitable. But to lose a life? Unthinkable. No one should die riding a bike. Indeed, no one had died at the Paralympic Games before Saturday’s fateful Saturday crash and my enduring and heartfelt thoughts go out to the Iran NPC and Bahman Golbarnezhad’s friends, family and team-mates.
It is scant consolation to say he died doing what he loved. But for so many of the Paralympic cyclists who competed at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, cycling represents freedom from what they have suffered, a release from the adversity that they have been forced to endure. In some cases, it is a life-saver, a game-changer. You only hope, if dealt the same cards, you too could muster the strength to find light in the darkness, to view whatever has happened to you as a gift and a new beginning rather than a curse.
Every day I woke up excited and I left the venue inspired. I saw the life-changing affects London 2012 had on so many. The words of Seb Coe at the 2012 Closing Ceremony came to mind: “When our time came, we did it right.” It was the most magical summer.
But Rio did it right, too. In their own way. These were the second best attended Paralympic Games in history. Millions of tickets were sold. Channel Four’s coverage attracted 46 per cent of the television audience.
The people in Rio were warm, friendly and welcoming. Being a formal Brit, I offered a handshake in greeting; Brazilian volunteers and staff drew me in for two kisses and a hug. You instantly felt at home and comfortable.
The Paralympic Park was a hive of activity every night. It may only have taken a few weeks, but the proud and vociferous nation that is Brazil took the Paralympic Games to their hearts as they had done with the Olympics, and embraced them. What I was privileged enough to see on the roads of Pontal will stay with me forever.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon. She then turned freelance at the end of 2014 and is part of the team who founded Voxwomen, a women’s cycling show that seeks to give the female elite peloton the coverage they deserve. Laura’s latest articles.