Not a dry eye in my house. Paralympics, pain and plasticity.

I LOVE the Olympics. And didn’t London put on a stellar show – I have really enjoyed watching you Brits hold up the mirror and get rather surprised at how good you really are at stuff – the Olympic medal haul from Team GB was truly magnificent of course. I remember how Uber-Australian we all became during and for a while after the Sydney 2000 Games, and it was fabulous to see that happening for your mob.

I enjoyed the incredible feats of human ability of course. Watching Usain sprint was like watching a cheetah. Seeing the rowers or canoeists move swiftly across the water like a single multilimbed stealth bug, the divers carve through the water like bullets – etc etc. I love it. I can’t wait for Rio. However, the thing that seems to have taken us all by storm during London2012 has been the Paralympics – a hearty congratulations to the Brits for bringing the Paralympics up a notch in our consciousness – the ads went viral

and somehow managed to integrate the truly superhuman feats with the personal stories of tragedy – very courageous and for mine, very effective advertising.

Our ABC television covered the Paralympics reasonably well and it was glorious to be able to go from sport to sport without any commercial breaks. The challenge however, was to be able to convince my beautifully sensitive daughter that I was actually enjoying it – every night there would be some amazing feat, some unbridled joy and self-astoundment, that I would not just tear up, but even get the facial contractions of a pre-sob.

This must, I figure, be very good for me – to experience such elation when watching another human do something gobsmackingly excellent, surely must stir good chemicals, activate good biological pathways – promote health. Which brings me to the trigger for this blog post – Dr Matt Howard from the Section of Pain Research at the Institute of Psychiatry, London, sent me this link ‘Broadcasters must seize on this surge in interest‘ and commented that it had him thinking about neuroplasticity, mirror neurones, behavioural relevance. It got me going too – could it be possible that this mix of personal story, pain, athletic supremity, unbridled elation and self-efficacy could take us to a new place biologically? A neurogenic, neuroplastic, anti-inflammatory state in which adaptation is optimised?

We do know that emotional engagement and exercise foster neurogenesis/plasticity and I don’t know of any mix of these that is quite so ‘recovery-oriented’ as my nightly paralympics sessions. Perhaps we should lift the heart rate doing something truly challenging, watch some Paralympics, and then do our rehab/cognitive/motor/conceptual training. Perhaps we should have posters of Matthew Cowdrey, Jacqui Freney and Jessica Long on our clinic walls and on the back of our cereal packs.


  1. Not from my experience. I am a handicapped (IPC class S9) swimmer (below elbow amputee) and 45 years old. As that I can either participate in regular (non disabled) Masters competitions or in regular (not age group separated) handicapped sports competitions. I do both. I qualified for this year’s FINA World Masters Championship in Riccione, Italy (a non-disabled event), and placed 244th out 254 world class 45-50 year old male swimmers over 100m crawl. Given my age I am one of the fastest currently active S9-swimmers. Wherever I go, wherever I train, wherever I compete, non disabled colleagues either just about tolerate this, or they clearly indicate to me, in non negotiable words, that they expect a disabled person to compete among other disabled people and NOT come and spoil the fun of the training for non disabled folks, or, the fun of the competition. I would say that from a few years of hand(s) on experience in effective competitive sports, there are no tears shed for the disabled swimmer. The direct sympathy one gets is zero to below zero. That are the facts of real life as far as I can see inasmuch as sportsmanship is concerned. Far away from the pool, yes, there might be the one or the other glorification. But with direct exposure, not one tear of joy. Only a very few and select nice colleagues that stick it out for me.

  2. That some of those paralympians became amputees in an effort to treat their CRPS adds another layer to the emotions of those watchers that would treat these ailments in other ways.

  3. This is interesting. My wife can’t watch the Olympics, sport or anything ballistic or kinetic – the watching generates pain and is stressful even while she can appreciate all the other great things about the events, the people and their stories – its just too uncomfortable. Seems like sympathetic entrainment which makes me think that there is possibly an up side if I can find video of movement that has other characteristics such as flow and calm. What I did see of the ParaOlympics was terrific.

  4. steve schmidt says:

    Loz – I’m with you too, matie. Except I can’t even make it through some of the commercials for the Olympics with a dry eye. It has opened a groovy discussion with the kids on how tears can come with expressions of saddness, joy, grief, pride, elation, relief, compassion… just think about all of the fantastic fMRI “artwork” and chemical orchestra in our bloodstream that would come from watching a heart-wrenching Olympic story unfold. And yep, we do have those Paralympics champs on our clinic walls. They are as inspiring to our staff as they are to the new patient with spinal cord injury, West Nile encephalomyelitis, recurrent meningioma or new traumatic amputee. It also reminds me that the other everyday hero is the chap down the hall who just took his first steps since July, or the gal who rolled in to the rehab gym just for a visit to say she’s driving again and has been able to return to work… just hard to keep a dry eye somedays.

    All smiles – Steve-o

  5. Luke Parkitny says:

    Or even Alex Green, a unsw student who won bronze at the London paralympics: The engineering faculty has had a giant “go alex” banner on the front of their building for weeks.