Phew. So that’s everything out of the way then. After an incredibly long year involving the Queen’s Jubilee, Wimbledon and then the Olympics, it was time for a well earned rest. What’s that you say? Paralympics? It’ll be worth a look, I suppose.

Before I began shooting at the 2012 Paralympic Games, I put a lot of thought into how I wanted to approach it. The easy way would be to treat it as a “portfolio” job, covering it purely as a chance to fill my archive with potentially voyeuristic images of disabilities. This was something that I really didn’t want to do, as I’m sure you can imagine. I knew that I wanted to shoot the Paralympics as I covered the Olympic Games; as a chance to show people performing at their best. At times, this would mean not including the wheelchair, prosthetic leg or obvious sign of disability. If I was prepared to do a nice close-up details shot of an Olympian’s hands as they prepared before an event, why should I purposefully recompose my image to include their hands AND wheelchair in every frame? Is it the photographer’s job to validate the athlete’s entry to the Paralympics at every opportunity?

With this in mind, I also had to find the balance where I wouldn’t actively avoid showing any signs of disability, as it was up to me to photograph the person. As I hope you can understand, it’s a fine line to walk. Writing this now, I can see how hung up I got on getting this right, but I think that’s one of the benefits of the Paralympic Games. It gave people the chance to really think about their perceptions of disability, and how they personally approach the subject. I found myself checking to make sure that my photographs weren’t simply about recording someone’s lack of limb, for example, but that they actually made interesting shapes, in the same way I would with an Olympian’s body.

I know it’s been discussed in detail on many channels and pages elsewhere, but I think it’s a real shame that the Olympics and Paralympics have to be separated. I’ve heard excuses before that modifications have to be made and it would prove too hard logistically to organise, but having shot both, I’ve failed to see what these massive changes would be. Accommodation would need to be wheelchair friendly and have certain user-specific options, but as it’s all made from scratch for the Games, there’s no reason it can’t be done. The only reason that I can see is the question of who wants to see Paralympian athletes. It sounds harsh but I’m happy to hear your opinion if you know of another reason. While networks from all over the globe fought to pay unbelievable figures for rights to broadcast the Olympics, the Paralympics was a media ghost town by comparison.

It would be nice to be able to say that I was speaking from the higher moral ground, but unfortunately everyone, including AFP reduced their coverage down to, on average, at least a quarter of what they’d used for the Olympics. Concern that this was just penny-watching by the chiefs was negated by watching the world-wide usage of images as the Paralympics continued. Demand for images and content was high in the UK and across Europe, but the larger picture showed that the world’s interest matched that reduced staffing level. It’s a real shame as in so many ways, these athletes have put even more effort in to be where they are today.

Anyway, sport…

You know when you see basketball players leaping through the air to slamdunk the ball into the basket? These guys in wheelchair basketball play with the basket set at the same height. Yup, not only are they in wheelchairs, but the basket is set at 10 feet off the court. If it were me playing, I’d be demanding a 6 foot height limit. Mind you, I’d also be pleading to be taken off the court as somehow there’d been some terrible mix up and I was being forced to participate in the Paralympics.

During the Olympics, I was kept at a healthy distance from the Athletics track by the powers that be, mainly due to my total lack of experience, but also because the photographers that get to shoot track and field cling to it with all their might, as it does produce some of the best moments of any Games. With the team covering the Paralympics being stripped down to such a small crew, I finally got the chance to be inside the stadium for something other than an opening or closing ceremony. My main position for these sessions was inside the grotto of doom; a pit beneath the regular media stand that looks along the length of the 100m track. Being set into the ground, the photographer gets to shoot at near-ground level, creating some really dynamic angles.

One of the biggest stories of the Paralympics came from, indisputedly the biggest star on the world stage; Oscar Pistorius. For those that didn’t follow the saga, Oscar basically accused Brazilian athlete Alan Fonteles Oliveira of cheating by using longer than regulation “blades”. Just after losing a very important race is probably not the best time to interview the hot favourite, but his comments didn’t seem that sporting. After apologising, the medal ceremony the next day was supposedly being enjoyed between friends. I can’t say I’m that sure about that…

The challenges that all of the athletes face were incredible in their diversity, but those who took part who were partially-sighted or entirely blind, must have a very unique mindset. Being able to just run, jump or swim as fast as you can in a direction, without holding back, must go against everything your self-preservation instinct must be screaming at you. Both the long jump and triple jump features a guide who literally points the athlete in the right direction before rushing down to the pit. When they’re in position, they clap, shout and generally make some noise, so that the athlete can charge at full pelt towards the voice before leaping into the void. Incredible. The same goes for those who took part in the track events. With a guide runner by their side holding a strap in their hand, they take off as fast as they can and just rely on the guide to get them through safely.

Sadly it doesn’t always work out for the best. Nearing the final few metres of the womens 400m T12, Guilherme Soares de Santana stumbled and fell, dragging the blind athlete Terezhina Guilhermina to the ground with him. Not his best moment, I’m sure.

Still, he probably didn’t feel as bad as Gideon…

I have an admission to make. I’d never heard of Alex Zanardi until I turned up at the road cycling event at the Brands Hatch motor racing circuit. To be fair, that’s nothing new as I barely recognise a single name when I shoot a Premiership match, but to cover an event that is solely based around someone you’ve never heard of is a little unusual. Anyway, it’s fair to say I do know about him now. Having watched a clip of the horrendous moment that led him along this path, it was also fantastic to see the BBC incidentally charting his lowest point right through to his Olympic gold in three short headlines within their “related links” on this page. What an incredible rise from the ashes.

My final discipline of the Paralympics was wheelchair tennis. Having only ever seen it briefly at Wimbledon, it was enjoyable to at least return to a game I vaguely understood. It’s fair to say the Dutch own wheelchair tennis. Pretty much every match I saw involved between one and four members of the Netherlands’ team on court at any one time. Only the mens single final avoided any tang of orange with Japan’s Shingo Kuneida taking the top spot.

So that’s it. Over. Complete. Fin. All of those massive events that have been looming on the 2012 calendar are now ticked off. With life returning to normal, it’ll be fun to see what randomness Old Mother News throws at me for the rest of the year. Despite not being the biggest sports fan around, I can certainly say that the Olympics and Paralympics have set a high benchmark for the rest of the year to live up to.

31 Responses to “The London Paralympic Games”

  1. Fabulous work as always Leon, the fire image is stunning.

    Posted by Tim Allen
  2. Thought-invoking piece, Leon. Not only beautifully written, but beautifully backdropped with your superb work.

    Posted by Lynda Bowyer
  3. Nice work fella…lovely In field stuff , they should’ve let you loose there for the Olympics too. Their Loss.

    Posted by Eddie Mulholland
  4. Know how hard it is to photograph disabled sport but your shots are well taken

    Posted by andrew schofield
  5. @Tim Allen – Thanks bud. It was a shot that most people shot at least once during either Games but I had to visit it myself!

    @Lynda – Thanks very much, Lynda. The writing is a lot harder to put together for me but I’m determined to offer a little bit of insight into the working life as there seems to be a lot of folks trying to get in!

    @Eddie – Cheers Ed. The mighty Adrian Dennis rules the domain of the infield so I might have to work on his brake lines before Rio…

    @Andrew – Thanks Andrew.

    Posted by tabascokid
  6. Hi – great images as ever. Your point about the separation of the Olympics and Paralympics was an interesting one. One view I heard voiced was that the Paralympians actually value the separation, because there is a sense of “ownership” and identity that comes with having their own event. The atmosphere of the Paralympics seemed different to that of the Olympics to me, more fun, more irreverent – just generally a bit madder (34 point medley relay anyone? Brilliantly bonkers!). Maybe that would be lost if events were just interspersed amongst Olympic events? Would the paralympic events just be seen as “fillers” if they were no longer part of their own identifiable, swaggering, proud programme? What does seem to have happened, in the UK at least, is that the penny has suddenly dropped that Paralympians are serious and credible athletes. We have Oscar Pistorius competing both events to thank for that – which is an incredible legacy for that one man to achieve. And I think the channel 4 coverage (including “The Last Leg”) has pushed the idea that it’s understandable to be curious about the disability, so we shouldn’t be shy or pretend there’s nothing different. So I guess photographing the stump for stump’s sake might not be appropriate, but why feel awkward about the fact that a beautiful photo of an athlete happens to have an unusual bit of anatomy in it?

    Posted by Jon Bury
  7. @Jon – Cheers Jon. It’s an interesting point you make regarding wanting the separation. Spending my time at the venues, I didn’t get to see any of the coverage and in-studio debates so it’s good to hear that it was discussed from all angles. My viewpoint came from a frustration at the lack of interest from the media. However much some countries support and love the Paralympic Games, it will remain an interesting sideshow to it’s “bigger brother” as long as major networks in countries such as the US don’t even bother to acknowledge it. If the general consensus from Paralympian athletes is that they do want to stand alone from the Olympics, I’d be more than happy. It just seems such a crime as it currently stands. Thankfully, the 2012 Games was such a resounding success, we can only hope that we’ve set a new benchmark for future Games to aspire to.

    Posted by tabascokid
  8. Stunning images, Leon. Taken as they should be…with the athletes’ disabilities not defining them, by being foremost in the shot, but being just one part of who they are. Very well done.

    Posted by Liz Selkirk
  9. I guess we can also debate here why men’s sports disciplines are better supported (and remunerated) than women’s sports… Epic pics and story as usual Leon!

    Posted by Gill
  10. Amazing work Leon – I’m speechless!

    Posted by Carol
  11. Amazing and inspirational, well done!

    Posted by John
  12. Stunning!
    Have to say reading your report added such an emotion to the images which already told a fantastic story, I couldn’t help but have a lump in my throat

    Posted by Celia
  13. Beautiful pictures, Leon. I’d say you have managed wonderfully capturing the athletes’ emotions and achievements, no matter how much of the disabilty comes into it. There’s such beauty in all of them.

    Posted by Karo
  14. Fabulous photos as usual, thanks for always sharing. As for the question about separation, I guess the athletes would be the best ones to answer that. I would think a nice compromise would be to hold the Paralympic Games immediately following the Olympics. Why the long break? I think if they were held right afterwards, the media is already there, public attention is at its maximum and more interest and enthusiasm would remain.

    Posted by Courtney
  15. Breathtaking. The depth of emotion running through the core of these is very special.

    Posted by James
  16. @Liz Selkirk – Thanks Liz. I’m glad you think I achieved my aim!

    @Gill – Nah, that’s just because men are better, really. ;)

    @Carol – Thans Carol. That’s very kind of you.

    @John – Cheers John.

    @Celia – Blimey! Thanks very much. It’s always a pleasure to hear the post worked on both sides.

    @Karo – Thanks Karo. As I said in the piece, while my original aim was to not linger on any disabilities, respect and attention has to be paid to those that really are battling against their physical conditions. It’s a pleasure to hear you think I balanced it well. Cheers.

    @Courtney – Thanks for your kind words. As for the timing, I reached the conclusion that if they were to be kept separate, the best way would be to have the Paralympics first while their is a real hunger for the events. As it is, the two week gap gives those that want to dash off plenty of time to strip and leave. Having said that, I think those of us that covered the Games would be on life-support through sheer exhaustion by now if they ran concurrently!

    @James – Thanks James. That’s good to hear. :)

    Posted by tabascokid
  17. These are honestly some of the most powerful astounding images I have ever seen. So much emotion and energy in every perfectly captured frame. Thank you for sharing.

    Posted by Pete Smyth
  18. Just fabulous…thank you for sharing these x

    Posted by Kim
  19. Oh, yes.

    That Sebastien Mobre shot is right up my street (as it were) but then most of your shots here go far beyond.

    Posted by Sandeha Lynch
  20. Thanks for sharing your amazing work! I have tried to find everything I can to look at for the Paralympics since not much media was covering the events. I wish I could have watched it as we did the Olympics, but I guess NBC didn’t need to cover that for us. It’s special photographers like you that took the time to share it with all of us. Again, thank you for sharing. I really appreciate it. :)

    Posted by Angie P
  21. @Pete Smyth – Thanks very much, Pete.

    @Kim – Cheers!

    @Sandeha – Haha! Glad you like them, squire.

    @Angie P – No problem at all, Angie. Thanks for taking the time to visit and read the post. :)

    Posted by tabascokid
  22. Incredible Photos, Incredible Athletes!! Not too sure about the bloke in the tie.

    Most disabled people concentrate on their abilities rather than their disabilities.

    This is a subject close to my heart as my eldest son is severely disabled. The Paralympics have been fantastic about improving everyones impression of disabled people. You have definitely played your part in producing some fabulous pictures.

    Posted by Craig Shepheard
  23. Leon. A morning lie in enjoyed by a cuppa tea and reading this blog post. Who needs normal media channels first thing in the morning. Cracking shot of Peacock crossing the line and our Gideon? oh how that photo conjures up the image of howling cheers and smiles we all joined in with. Cracking photos.

    Posted by James
  24. @Craig – Thanks Craig. I’m really happy to hear that you think it was photographed with respect. That’s very much appreciated.

    @James – Waking up in bed with me is only reserved for those blog readers that pay the extra subscription, I’m afraid. Oh I see… Sorry, crossed lines there. Cheers for the kind words! :)

    Posted by tabascokid
  25. Great work Leon. Oh Gideon ;)

    Posted by Justin Tallis
  26. Wonderful images Leon. As an amateur sports photographer, I love looking at your work for inspiration. I will be photographing the Pan Pacific Masters at the Gold Coast soon, and I hope that I can produce something a touch special amongst the loads of images I will be shooting.

    Posted by Tina Dial
  27. @Justin – Cheers squire.

    @Tina Dial – Thanks very much, Tina! It’s great to hear you like the shots. I don’t consider myself a sports photographer at all so it’s pleasing to know I did alright. :) Good luck with the PPM!

    Posted by tabascokid
  28. Hi Leon.
    Very powerful imagery and still inventive shots.
    So many good ones to choose from and for me the cyclists helmet with reflections is brilliant as is the tennis ball in wheel .
    Enough photographer I think would have turned up had there been enough editors to support them .
    For me sport is sport regardless and there is a dynamism which can be captured and felt through images that video footage doesn’t give you time to savour .
    It communicates the effort and courage more to me than moving images can .
    Superb job , just miffed that those of us that would have given their right arm to cover this for anyone would have been given a chance to do so.
    Perhaps now the UK has shown the commercial guys there is money in this event things will change . We were mortified that the choice of viewing channels were so much less than for the Olympics that I feel as good as it was compared to the past it still has a way to go .
    I too though think it’s important for them athletes to have their own games , their own identity within society and something that gives them their own credit for their achievements .
    B T W , very envious of your lens collection .

    Posted by Ray Fothergill
  29. Thanks Ray. The issue with staffing wasn’t photographers turning up, but more about the general overall budget thrown at the event. The cuts in the staffing applied similarly across the board with photographers, editors and technicians all being hacked. Regarding future Paralympic games, I think any country that fails to really invest in giving it the coverage is not only failing to give the athletes the credit they deserve, but missing out on a massive source of revenue and viewing figures. Hopefully, 2012 changed the way they will be seen from now on.

    Posted by tabascokid
  30. I love this blog post, amazing photography and the colours are so incredible. London never looked so good than when it was seen through your eyes, x

    Posted by Kirsten
  31. Hi Leon,
    First of all: Very impressive shots, so powerful! I love it! I think you’re very talented!
    My name is Paulina. I’m from Germany and at the moment I’m working on a Handicap-Magazine (ficticious and non-commercial) as my final exam for graphic design. Now, my question is, may I use some of your photos for an article? They’re perfect for it!
    If you agree, I would use some of them and name you, if I publish it on my blog!
    For more questions, just message me!
    Wish you all the best,
    Paulina

    Posted by Paulina M.

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