Stories

The shining stars of the Paralympics

Date posted: 15/09/16

 The shining stars of the Paralympics

 

As the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games captivate audiences across the globe, Pete Nicholas celebrates the hope they bring and the ultimate hope found in Jesus Christ.

In a chapter titled ‘Illusions’ from his book Conduct of Life, the American writer Ralph Waldo-Emerson describes visiting the Mammoth Caves of Kentucky. Deep underground the guides turn off all the lamps except one. Suddenly in the darkness the visitors can see the crystals in the roof of the cave sparkling in the reflected light of the lamp. Emerson’s point is that the crystals were always there, but it is only in the context of darkness that they shine so clearly.

The Paralympics are rightly celebrated as a beacon of hope in a broken world. Some call it ‘a triumph of the human spirit’. Others say it shows the ‘power of sport in overcoming adversity’. What is clear is that when Aaron ‘Wheelz’ Fotheringham backflipped his wheelchair 30 feet up through a blazing hoop in the opening ceremony, this is about stars that have often sparkled now being given the chance to really shine. Not just in the glitz of the opening night, but over the coming days each one of the 4,350 athletes will get a chance to convey their story on the public stage. A story of light against darkness.

Whilst sport for athletes with disabilities has existed since the late 19th century, the start of the Paralympic movement traces back to the end of World War Two and Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Dr. Ludwig Guttman was rehabilitating injured servicemen and women and organised a sports competition for them, taking place on the opening day of the 1948 London Olympics. And so the Paralympic movement began.

The shining stars of the Paralympics

 

Set against the bleak backdrop of human suffering and loss of life from World War Two, the 16 injured servicemen and women of those first ‘games’ had a chance to shine. At a time when there was still so much stigma attached to congenital and trauma-induced disabilities, these games highlighted the endurance and dignity of disabled people all around us in society. 

Similarly today the growth of the Paralympic movement is on one hand a triumph of hope, but on the other hand it reminds us that we live in a world full of disease, impairment and injury. How do we engage with these twin realities of the world’s darkness, but our longing for light?

In the letter to the church in Rome the apostle Paul says something quite startling. He argues not just that we can rejoice despite our sufferings, but that “we rejoice in our sufferings” (Romans 5 v 3, ESV - emphasis added). Here is light not just shining despite the darkness, but shining in the darkness.

What is the source of this luminous joy? He continues: “Hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” (Romans 5 v 5-6, ESV).

The shining stars of the Paralympics

 

Hope is the key. It turns our tragedies to triumph and our sadness to celebration. That much is obvious. But notice where this hope is located. It is not in the human spirit, which whilst noble, is so often the cause of our problems, nor is it in sport, which, if we reflect, we know is full of both the light and shade of human existence. The hope is located in the all-conquering power of God’s love. A love that is not an illusion, nor some wishful thinking of religious escapism. It is a love grounded in the historic death of Jesus Christ - a moment when God confronted the world’s darkness and yet light prevailed.

International Paralympic Committee president Sir Philip Craven addressed the opening ceremony, urging athletes to “Through your performances, tell your story, a narrative of inclusion, a tale of empowerment and a legend that hope will always conquer fear”. This is what we love about the Paralympics and more fundamentally it is what we all long to be true. The gospel of Jesus Christ and the hope of the love of God show us that it can be.

 

 

 

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Pete Nicholas, Inspire Church, London
Pete is one of the pastors at Inspire Church in London as well as working part- 
time for Christians in Sport. He is also the co-author of 'Virtually Human', a book
about the impact of technology in our digital age.