From the moment I first heard about the Invictus Games I was sold. And not just because Prince Harry is the face of the Games!
Something the past year of dating in London has really done for me, is give human faces to the Army. Any girl of a certain age who has used Tinder in central London will have come across a fair few Army officers! And almost every one I’ve dated has become a friend. As you’ll have seen from both The Queen’s Guard and The Skype Date’s accounts of the last twelve months, active service has been a very real part of Army life in recent years, and some members of the Army have made huge sacrifices in defence of their nation.
Last month I had the privilege of planting the ceramic poppies in the moat of the Tower of London, to commemorate every British serviceman who died in WW1. However the sacrifices made for liberties, which we often take for granted, aren’t just reserved to a hundred years ago.
The Invictus Games is a celebration of the capability of disabled servicemen, and a declaration. I AM … Unconquered. (The literal translation of Invictus). The participants – all serving or former servicemen – were all wounded in action. Wounded, but not defeated. As such, the Games has played a vital part for many in their recuperation – a focus for recovery and an incredible showcase of just how able the disabled are.
In the past year I’ve mentioned Paralympic sport a great deal on 30 Dates. I interviewed athlete Claire Cashmore, and spent one of my 30 Dates at the Copperbox on National Paralympic Day. Last month I got to sit in the audience of the Last Leg – a show which has really helped to bring disability into our everyday dialogue.
It’s interesting – I think as a generation we were taught not to stare when people are different. Which is obviously polite, and accepting. But it almost made differences taboo to talk about. We were taught not to acknowledge differences for fear it was seen as discrimination. But as a result, it’s made us all tongue-tied. And as the Last Leg has underlined, it IS ok to ask questions about disability, and to be fascinated with the realities of living life with prosthetics or in a wheelchair.
I have always had the utmost respect for disabled athletes – right back to when I was living in Canada and met Paralympic snow sports athletes. They were accomplishing things on skis that I could only dream of, despite visual impairments, or missing limbs.
And so when Invictus Tickets went on sale at the start of the summer, I happily signed up to tickets for all four days.
On Thursday I headed up to the Lee Valley Athletics Centre to watch the athletics. For the best part of five hours we watched athletes from all over the world competing in the full range of track and field events. There were jaw-dropping moments – including Joseph Townsend lapping the entire field in the 1500m race – the second of his four gold medals of the day. And heart-wrenching moments – Derek Derenalgi falling during the 200m race. But the overwhelming sense was that every competitor was a victor. We watched events held between only 2 competitors, because they were the only ones in their class. Running races where the final competitor was all but walking, and where the lower end of the field ended minutes after the medal winners. And yet every competitor was treated like a winner by the crowd. The level of awe for what the injured servicemen and women were achieving was palpable.
Yesterday I spent my evening in the Copperbox at the Olympic Park. I’ve wanted to watch ‘Murderball’ (wheelchair rugby) for some time. During the Paralympics tickets for the discipline sold out really quickly, and so when I realised the Invictus Games would include the sport, I knew I had to attend.
As we settled in our seats, we quickly realised how different the sport was to Rugby Union. For a start it was played indoors, with a ball closer to a basketball than a rugby ball. Only 4 players from each team were on the ‘pitch’ (more of a court) at any one time, and teams could make regular substitutions.
Despite knowing nothing about Murder Ball, it was easy enough to pick up the rules, and by the time the fast-paced Bronze Medal game began, we were pretty au fait with it all. As the standard of the games increased, so too did the power behind the tackles! The Copper Box echoed as metal smashed metal, and players where sent crashing to the ground.
Each game was made of two ten-minute halves. And so when the Bronze Medal game finished before 7pm, we found ourselves wondering if there would be more than three games in the afternoon session.
There was. And we were in for an incredible treat!
I’d bought the tickets so early on that I’d been completely unaware of the exhibition game happening between the Bronze and Gold Medal games.
Invictus vs the Endeavour Trust – with Prince Harry and Zara Tindall up against Mike Tindall, Dame Kelly Holmes and Denise Lewis (and various international wheelchair rugby athletes!). The exhibition game was incredible, and just showed what great sports the royals are. At the start of the match Harry pretended to slip the referee money. When he scored the first goal, he immediately gave Mike Tindall a taunting handshake that turned into a thumbs down. The pair larked around throughout the game, pretending to tip each other out. When Mike scored a goal on his wife, Zara tapped him playfully on the back as he crossed the line, and later when Harry was sent to the box for fouling Denise Lewis, he hung his head in pantomime shame.
The game was great. Egged on by team managers Johnny Wilkinson and Clive Woodward, both teams were brilliantly enthusiastic, and the game was really in keeping with the spirit of the day. Harry had been walking leisurely around the Copper Box, sitting happily amongst spectators. James and Pippa Middleton watched on from the crowd, happily talking selfies for the Invictus Twitter page, and everyone was relaxed and really positive about the sport.
After the exhibition game, it was time for the final. Great Britain vs the USA – it was one of the most closely fought sporting matches I’ve ever seen! By this point, my rugby fan friend who had gone to the event with me had sung every rugby chant going, booed Harry for missing a goal, and was now on his feet shouting for GB as hard as he could! He wasn’t the only member of the crowd going nuts! Team GB finally secured the lead and won by 2 goals.
We watched on as Prince Harry and disabled rugby legend Matt Hampson presented the gold medals to the Great British team. At one point the prince was metres from us (we were in the third row and he was on the gym floor), and he must have had 300 camera phones pointed in his direction!
My rugby veteran friend described it as one of the best sporting events he’d ever been to, and I couldn’t disagree. It was an incredible day. There’s one day left of the Games (tomorrow I’m heading off to watch the swimming) – fingers crossed they are just the first of many more to come.
I AM … inspired.
Miss Twenty-Nine xxx