In the summer of 1976, my grandfather, Edwin Ralph Hill-Jones, led the Jamaican national wheelchair basketball team to Toronto to take part in the fifth Paralympic Games—the first to be held in Canada. My grandmother, Dora, and my mother, Debbie, then thirteen, accompanied him. It was a rough-around-the-edges affair, held at a horse-racing track, with the athletes retiring to beer tents after the competitions, and a break-in, which involved the theft of the flags of four participating countries. It was also rife with controversy, due to Apartheid and the presence of the South African team. Despite this, it was an event which helped to change the perception of disabled people and paved the way for subsequent Paralympic events, which have seen enormous popularity and support.
Dr. Robert Jackson, the organiser, said “It goes back to the concept of ability, not disability. It was a time when people were generally uncomfortable around anyone who had a disability. But if you see someone who’s in a wheelchair or blind or an amputee and they’re racing, throwing and doing things on an athletic field, then surely they can come into your office and put in an eight-hour day.” He wanted, as my grandfather did throughout his sporting and coaching life, to help to improve the self-esteem of disabled people and to break down barriers. My grandfather helped to rewrite the rules of wheelchair basketball and coached, not only in Jamaica, but also at Stoke Mandeville, leading the British team to success at several Commonwealth Games.
The excitement for the Toronto games was enormous, particularly for my teenaged mother, who had helped her father often during training at Stoke Mandeville to “officiate”, being allowed to blow the whistle during games and to learn from him and his team. In the days prior to the event, my family had taken a trip with the women’s team to New York, staying in Queens, being shown around the city by a local coach, and to Niagara Falls. They were so proud of the team and buzzing with anticipation.
Due to the political and racial tensions and controversy involving South Africa, however, my grandfather’s Jamaican team was pulled out of the Games the night before they were due to compete after a phone call from Michael Manley. My mother, as a child, cried all night. The Jamaican team were in tears and wanted to burn their uniforms on the tarmac. But my grandfather, whilst devastated, disappointed and upset for his team, understood the reasons and maintained the calm, cool head he always possessed. He got them together, told them how proud of them he was for all of their hard work and that just being there was a tremendous achievement. He told them that they would hold their heads high, remain in Toronto and watch the other athletes compete, supporting them whilst wearing their Jamaican uniforms.
Though my mother remembers how upset she was, she also remembers her astonishment that my grandfather could be so strong and so accepting of the circumstances. She might have even been a little angry about his perceived lack of outrage at the time.
Of course, growing up, she understood more about the complexities of the political situation, and began to think more and more, not about the gut-wrenching disappointment of not being able to compete, but about the work ethic and humour of the team, the pride they had and the way they, despite the initial surge of anger and upset, held their heads high and cheered on the other teams at the Paralympics, enjoying the jazz music played by Oscar Peterson in the beer tents and the camaraderie of simply being there and meeting other disabled athletes from all over the world.
I know they wished that they could have been out there on the basketball court, but I think that the optimism of the event impacted upon them tremendously and, for me, it’s the lesson that it is possible to act with pride, class and grace, even if things don’t work out in the way we expected. As Arnold Boldt, an athlete from Saskatchewan, who competed in several Paralympics, said “(The ’76 Games) was a bigger thing than just sports. It brought attention to disability and accessibility in the world and showed that you can be physically active even if you’re not physically complete.”
The above is a story I have heard all my life, and it is one that made me sad as a child but has inspired me more and more as I’ve grown up. I admire my grandad so much for everything that he did for sports and for athletes with disabilities and, in doing my own research about the ’76 Paralympics, I have realised the importance of that event and the passion the organisers had for smashing down physical barriers and creating a fairer world.
I was lucky enough to have a similar experience to my mother as a child, sitting on the side-lines at Stoke Mandeville as my grandfather trained his British team, and chatting to the athletes during breaks, sometimes sitting in their laps in their wheelchairs.
My grandad was an inspirational leader—a warm, gregarious man, a big softie, in truth, who demonstrated a real passion for sport and who coached by demonstrating, often sitting in the chair himself and joining in with his team. He would never ask anyone to do anything that he would not do himself, and he never humiliated anyone. He taught with kindness, focus, clarity and, most of all, the promise that “we’re all in this together”.
I loved it all, and am grateful for the exposure to paraplegic sport and the humour, passion and tenacity of those athletes who, from my memory and those of my mother, were all wonderful people who pushed on, no matter what physical limitations and prejudices they may have faced.