A few days ago, Sir Peter Westmacott, the British ambassador to the United States, hosted a party for top American military officials on the terrace of his pillared Washington residence. The aim was not to discuss Nato, the Afghan war or defence cutbacks. Instead, the key issue was sport. In three months’ time, London will stage an inaugural “Invictus Games”, an international Paralympics-style sporting competition for hundreds of wounded servicemen and women, mostly American and British soldiers who served in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Last week a clutch of British celebrities championed the move: in a slick promotional video, James Bond actor Daniel Craig and the singer Joss Stone recited the rousing 19th-century poem “Invictus” (“undefeated”). Meanwhile Prince Harry dispatched his first ever tweet in support of the event, which will be held in London’s Olympic Park.
Now the US military establishment – which badly needs some good news at the moment, given the scandal bubbling about malfeasance in veteran hospitals – is throwing its weight behind the games as well. Last week, senior American officials and two dozen of the wounded soldiers who will be competing as athletes in September came to the UK embassy to celebrate the event, which was inspired by a (smaller) competition called the Warrior Games held in Colorado last year.
“The Invictus Games demonstrate the power of ability over disability and an acknowledgment of all that is good about our profession,” Army General Martin E Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, solemnly declared. Or, as Dr Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of Defense for Health Affairs echoed, “[This] competition is a testimony to the great care [our veterans] have received within the Military Health System… It will be an honour to watch them compete.”
As a piece of political theatre, this is fascinating for at least three reasons. First, and most obviously, the fact that anyone is even trying to stage this event shows just how many young wounded western veterans there are today. A couple of decades ago, when the west was not so embroiled in wars, nobody would have tried to stage an international event, least of all in an Olympic stadium: there would not have been a big enough pool of possible athletes.
Now, tragically, that has changed. The American media estimate that more than a million American injuries were recorded from the Iraq and Afghan wars, of which 50,000 are “polytraumas” – that is to say, multiple traumatic injuries. The figure for amputees is almost 2,000. The British have suffered big casualties too. This has strained military resources in those veteran hospitals but it has also created a whole set of – very laudable – programmes for sports rehabilitation.
The second point, though, is that as this casualty list has exploded, western governments face new criticism for not supporting their veterans. This is particularly acute in America, given the veterans’ hospitals scandal, but it is bubbling in Britain too. Thus it is no surprise that the military establishment and the political world have thrown their weight behind Invictus: it makes good – glossy – politics.
There is a third intriguing point. The games come at a time when media outlets are changing their ideas about what “good” sport is. When the notion of the Paralympics first cropped up five decades ago, it initially seemed to be just a minority-interest concept. Politicians were keen to be seen to back it because it seemed worthy: today, the White House honours its Paralympic athletes alongside their able-bodied counterparts in all official events.
But during the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, there were only 45 minutes of coverage each day on US television, on a non-mainstream channel. And while Channel 4 and the BBC provided more coverage, media pundits did not expect it to attract large audiences. Then, contrary to all predictions, the 2012 Paralympics turned out to be wildly popular among viewers. And that success has prompted media executives (and advertisers) to realise something else: in a world where the able-bodied Olympics seems scandal-prone and slickly commercial, the Paralympics has appeal precisely because it presents messy, real-life, human stories. It is almost closer to the Olympic dream. So hopes are now high that Invictus will be able to ride that wave; the combination of sport, duty, sacrifice and extreme heroism could potentially make powerful drama. These human stories are compelling.
Of course, there is always a possibility that the spotlight will end up having the opposite effect. When people see all those wounded soldier-athletes, with their tales of suffering, they may question what they were fighting for. To my mind, this is a debate that needs to be had. And surveys show that public support for these wars is falling in the US and UK. But I hope that, if nothing else, the games force us all to recognise the huge human cost of those wars, long after that Olympic stadium empties. And that somebody pays a salute to the pain that millions of ordinary Iraqis and Afghans also now feel. Particularly since they never get a chance to have sports rehabilitation at all.
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