I went to the Paralympics yesterday. I went back to the Stadium to watch the evening's Athletics. And, unlike 90% of the audience, I stayed until the last throw.
Athletics: Men's 100m T13, Men's 100m T35, Men's 200m T37, Men's 5000m T54, Men's Long Jump F42/44, Men's Discus F57/58, Men's Shot Put F52/53, Women's 100m T34, Women's 200m T35, Women's Discus F40, Men's 200m T46 They cram a heck of a lot of events into a Paralympic athletics session. Partly that's the nature of athletics, and partly it's because there are umpteen different disability classifications, which means there are 11 different men's shot put competitions and 14 different women's 100m finals. We got one of each last night, and much more besides, so it was important to make sure you were watching the right part of the field of play. The men's seated shot put was overlooked for the most part, and the "women of short stature" discus ignored unless nothing else was happening. It was the running, or wheelchairing, that most of the crowd wanted to see, and to get excited about. When the men's 5000m T54 heats came along, that meant cheering for GB star athlete David Weir. Round and round the track he whizzed, as the girl to my right became increasingly excited almost to the point of implosion. So gripped was the crowd by lap 10 that they completely missed the world record one-legged long jump taking place in the sandpit just in front - a magnificent springy leap. But then there are a lot of world records at a Paralympic athletics event, again because there are so many categories to score a world record in, and I think we saw nearly ten last night. If we were looking in the right direction, that is.
The packed-outcrowd was heavily laden with Union Jacks, hence quite partisan, though not afraid to cheer on a blatant underdog limping late towards the finishing line. And yet sometimes I did feel they weren't there to watch sport, they were there to watch the GB team progress to glory. When one British athlete came last in his heat the girl to my right described it as the saddest thing she'd ever seen - when another squeaked feebly into the final as the fastest qualifier the crowd went briefly wild. There was justifiable joy when Hannah Cockcroftstormed home in the T34 100m, and collective pride at the victory ceremony later when we all got to stand for (sniff) God Save The Queen. That seemed to be the signal for a large part of the crowd to leave, despite there still being an hour of competition to go. It can't have been late trains, it was barely ten o'clock, it can only have unwillingness to stay out on a weeknight. By the time the final 200m heats were underway about half the seats were empty, and by the final medal ceremony almost three-quarters. All credit to the stadium's designers for ensuring that even a depleted crowd can raise a massive roar, which must be hugely more than Paralympic athletes normally experience, but still somewhat disrespectful. The final hurl of the evening was in the wheelchair discus, a massive world record throw beyond 60m, but only 10% of us were left to see it. There were so many inspirational performances over three hours last night, far more than able-bodied athletics ever provides, but alas the audience displayed rather less dedication and staying power.