Super-star athletes are polishing their personas with the advent of the Summer Olympics to be held in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. One of them, Jamaican mega-medal winner Usain Bolt, has the gracefulness of a natural athlete. With his perpetual smile and generally good nature, Bolt is no pushover.
One doesn’t get the impression that Usain Bolt would promote something disagreeable.
Despite his gifts, or maybe because of them, Bolt also demonstrates a remarkably generous spirit, e.g., his 2012 embrace of double-amputee Oscar Pistorius, who competed against Bolt.
At a recent promo event, Bolt paired with Brazilian Paralympic multi-medalist Terezinha Guilhermina as her guide runner. Vision-impaired para-athletes compete under strict guidelines that may include use of sighted guide runners. Guilhermina trains and competes with guide Guilherme Soares de Santana; tethered at the wrist, she runs blindfolded as they match each other in speed and timing.
This high-speed dance is like a successful relationship: Trust is essential. Good communication is quick but subtle, successful only with lots of practice. Even when a compatible partner is found — no easy task in itself — the tasks are twice as difficult, twice as demanding.
If you’ve ever run a playground race with one leg joined to another person’s you begin to understand how tough it is to run as one.
Even so, Bolt expressed concern that Guilhermina would fall over or be unable to run fast enough. Both fears were unfounded.
Like running in synch, when an able-bodied athlete joins with a para-athlete, one shadows the other. Both understand the effort, sacrifice, and ability that has brought them to the medal podium. As in a good marriage, there is mutual admiration and respect; knowledge that the differences are not diminishments.
Now for the preachy part: There are two separate and unequal worlds when it comes to sport. Usain Bolt, personable as he is, sells because of his able-bodied ability, not his smile. Paralympic athletes sell to the larger audience only when paired with Olympic athletes; it doesn’t matter that their talent, drive, focus, and commitment to excellence are the same.
“Blade runner” Arthur Pistorius got more ink because of his fall from grace than from his rise to it.
Societal disequity is an old story and not just one about disability. Overcoming innate human suspicion and dislike of what is different requires conscious and concerted effort. The nudge may come from decades’ worth of disabled vets with their can-do mentality, greater numbers, and the societal bequeathing of a high moral ground.
Personally, I’ll take it any way I can get it: If the result to being paired with an able-bodied celebrity is lasting inclusion and a broader definition of human value, then drop the red flag and let the sports begin.
Kathe Skinner is a Marriage & Family Therapist whose private practice focuses on couples, especially those whose relationship is complicated by invisible or visible disability. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis for nearly 40 years and understands that athletes go beyond themselves to compete. With two world-class cat nappers, Petey and Lucy, Kathe and husband David live in Colorado where she doesn’t ski.