Dame Tanni and the great triviality

After the retirement of Tanni Grey-Thompson, Simon Barnes, of The Times, writes on the changing attitudes to disabled sport
Our perception of sport has changed radically over the past 50 years. Once it was all about bodies. A physical superiority guaranteed victory, it seemed: a batsman’s perfect cover drive, a tennis player’s immaculate forehand, a winger’s deftness, a weightlifter’s strength, a runner’s speed.

Now the emphasis has changed. It’s all about minds. We’d sooner talk about speed of thought, will to win, mental strength. Everyone’s a psychologist these days — you don’t get a touchline interview without the old psychologics: What was going through your mind? How does it feel? What was it like?

It’s a telly thing. TV diminishes the physical impact but emphasises the personality. It brings out facial expression and body language at the expense of much else. In the stands, you see the geometry of the pass and the finish; at home, you see the faces of the goalscorer and the humiliated defender.

We see not the differences but the universals. We see the faces of victory and defeat, of striving, of pain, of suffering, of joy. In every sport, we see the same humanity.

Which brings us to Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, who has announced her retirement from racing. We saw all these things in her sporting career: a lot of striving, an awful lot of victory, a very good deal of joy. One of the last of her 11 Paralympic gold medals came in the 100 metres. She won the London Marathon six times. She has sought and found victory in as many different forms as there are races.

She has the longevity of Sir Steve Redgrave, Michael Schumacher, Martina Navratilova, people so addicted to victory that they must go on and on and on. And here is the point: it really does not jar when we say these four names in the same breath. We recognise the common ground, we have seen their shared qualities of mental strife on television. We are perfectly prepared to accept Grey-Thompson in her rightful place alongside such people: as equal among firsts.

Disabled sport is no longer a contradiction. Sport is no longer all about perfect bodies. It is now very apparent that perfect minds have a lot to do with it as well. The idea of elite performance coupled with physical disadvantage is less difficult than it was. Grey-Thompson, as a result, made her wheelchair near as damn it invisible. We saw instead the blazingly tough mind, the rolling shoulders, the intense commitment of someone involved in an equipment sport and prepared to belt that equipment into the ground to win.

We saw the athlete, not the chair; the human, not the disability. Grey-Thompson was born with spina bifida and has been in a wheelchair since she was 7, but these details hardly matter. Certainly, they matter a great deal less than they used to.

Sport humanises everyone it touches — a strange truth when we consider the antisport apostles of the Seventies and Eighties who believed that sport was a dehumanising force in society. The fact of the matter is that sport has been a vivid and powerful force in creating a bigger, more inclusive, more humane society.

You watch sport on television and you see a winner, and you cannot help but identify with that winner. The joy and the weariness cannot help but touch you. It is one of the most basic of human emotions and the most easily shared: I’ve bloody well done it! We understand that person, we want to be that person and, in a way, we are that person.

I look forward to a doctorate-level thesis on the influence of sport in the changing perceptions of women in society. In track and field, and in tennis in particular, we have grown accustomed to women as victors, come to terms with the fact that women can bring us the same sporting joys as men. In some cases, as Dame Ellen MacArthur showed us, women can outdo men.

And as a result of Grey-Thompson’s addiction to victory, we are that little bit more likely to see a person in a wheelchair as a person. We have understood Grey-Thompson’s joy in victory; we therefore know we have something in common with her, by extension — a shared humanity with all wheelchair users. We are them, they are us, and so, in this way, bit by bit and hero by hero, does the notion of acceptance sneak up on us.

Grey-Thompson was a great champion for wheelchair users, not by campaigning and talking, but by doing. By seeking and finding victory. By making a wonderful and generous parade of her humanity. By making it vividly and uncompromisingly clear that our similarities are greater than our differences.

She is, you see, part of sport: the great triviality that has changed society.

This is an edited version of an article published in The Times. Read the article in full by clicking here.