'The ground you walk on is rock. I have been here before.
People come here to be born, to discover, to kiss,
to dream, and to dig and to kill. Watch for the mud.'
- Lisel Mueller, The Blind Leading the Blind
Two men stood on either end of a string, behind a starting line. Of similar height and similar build, from behind one could not tell them apart. A clammy sweat at the tip of their fingers, a tremor in the ground beneath their feet. Around them in the stadium, masses moved in unison, buzzed, sang, cheered.
The first man led the other toward the starting blocks. Helped him kneel down, adjusted his hands behind the painted white line. Then he too got into position, on his mark, and got set, string still in hand and pulled into a straight line, his partner at the other end.
Noise gushed in around them like a wave, so loud it drowned all other senses out. The first man could hear the anticipation, the sweat pearl on his back; everything had condensed into sound. The beat of his heart pumping, the pulse of blood rushing out, racing through dilated arteries and veins, the dizzying speed of his thoughts.
Suddenly, gunshot. The two men dashed off. All went quiet in the first man’s head, but the sound of his pounding feet and that of his partner’s, running in stride, on the other end of the string. He fell back far enough that it was taut, close enough that they could hear each other breathe. When he felt a tug he picked up his pace to match that split second difference.
A little to the right!
Their fingers were practically touching, on either end of the string.
Their run was a perfectly synchronized dance. The blind athlete and the guide. One of the men’s eyes ran them both across the finish line; they won a Paralympic race.
On the 29th of July 1948, the Stoke Mandeville Games were held at a hospital by the same name, across town from the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games. Sixteen injured service men and women competed for medals in archery; sixteen unnamed people silently pushed their wheelchairs across the lawn.
Every four years since then, the Paralympics Games have been held, ‘to enable Para athletes to achieve sporting excellence and inspire and excite the world.’ This year four thousand three hundred and fifty athletes are competing in twenty-two sports and five hundred twenty-six medal events.
The athletes are physically, visually, or intellectually impaired. Compete in wheelchairs and sleds, on crutches and prosthetic legs. They cycle, ride, swim, sail, play basketball, volleyball, rugby and tennis. With a little guidance, beside them, behind them, from someone at the end of a string.
There is something to be said about the kind of person who will take up either end of that string. On the one end is someone who will, literally, trust another human blindly. Shut out the odds, shut out the noise, and follow the sound of a voice. Run madly in the dark toward a finish line, a goal he knows is there, but cannot see.
On the other end is an athlete who will train long and hard to deliberately come in second place. Run and cycle, ride, swim, sail, for another athlete with imperfect odds to achieve, not perfection, but excellence.
Not much ‘inspires and excites’ the world these days. In fact, the world is quite sad. But this week a blind runner and his guide won a race on either side of a string. I am sure they felt the crowd go wild, the podium beneath their feet vibrate. I’m sure they heard the two gold medals clink like thunder, their heartbeats and their breaths.
Walk on, keep walking, there are axes above us.
Watch for the occasional bits and bubbles of light —
Birthdays for you, recognitions: yourself, another.
Watch for the mud.