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Rising Phoenix: redefining superhero

Recently Netflix released a documentary focused on Paralympians and their stories. Rising Phoenix documents some powerful athletes and for Brielle Quigley, redefined the word superhero.

A caucasian woman is suspended underwater, her right leg ends above the knee, she is wearing a swimsuit and has outstretched arms. White text superimposed on the photo that reads "A Netflix Original Documentary Rising Phoenix 26 August Netflix

I’ve never really understood the hype around superhero movies.

While my friends rushed to see the latest highly anticipated Marvel film in a string of highly anticipated Marvel films, I quietly enjoyed my preferred genre of ‘mundane dramas’. The label is an affectionate one, but I am well aware of my affinity for television and film that focus more on the ‘human’ rather than the, well, superhuman.

So when Rising Phoenix—a documentary on the Paralympics and the athletes who compete in it—kicked off with an Avengers analogy, it is safe to say I was sceptical. Sure, I could understand the comparison; Paralympians are undoubtedly incredible athletes, and it would be valid to recognise them as ‘super’ strong or ‘super’ fast, but part of me felt this Hollywood label could detract from the very real struggle faced by people moving through the world with disabilities.

By the end of the documentary, I realised all along I’d been missing the point.

Rising Phoenix begins by setting the scene of the 2012 London Paralympics, alluding to the unpredictable nature of how the Games are both organised and received depending on host location. London is the birthplace of the Paralympic Games, something Xavi Gonzalez (the International Paralympics Committee CEO at the time) considered a good indicator that 2012 would be memorable for all of the right reasons.

He wasn’t wrong. The stadiums were packed, with a record 2.7 million tickets sold. More athletes than ever competed in the Games, representing 164 different countries from around the globe and challenging the misconceptions and narrowmindedness previously held around disability. The energy surrounding the Paralympics was more electric than ever.

But as the documentary unpacks, this was not always the case.

Since its inception in 1960, there has been an ongoing battle for the Paralympics to be afforded the same respect and attention that is inherently given to its able-bodied counterpart. We hear of the ‘disaster’ that was Atlanta in 1996, and the earlier flat-out denial from Russia of a disabled population in their country. On the basis of this highly problematic claim, they declined to host the 1980 Paralympics.

That same year, Dr Ludwig Guttman (founder of the Paralympic Games) passed away. Throughout Rising Phoenix, we learn more of his incredible story as an escaped Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, restarting his medical career in England with a special interest in spinal cord injuries. At one point an audio clip from Dr Guttman is played, discussing what a “serious omission” it would be to not include sport in the rehabilitation of disabled people. Up until the moment of his passing, he cited this decision as one of the best in his medical career.

What is it about sport, and more specifically the Paralympics, that is so essential to not only those with disabilities but to society as a whole? Why had Dr Guttman (and so many others) fought so hard to see the Games come to fruition, persevering to find a host country when Russia had refused?

These questions are answered by the various stories of international athletes documented in the film. From Australia’s swimming gold medallist Ellie Cole recounting her mother’s overwhelming fear that Ellie’s amputated leg would hold her back; to China’s powerlifter Cui Zhe admitting her parents had held low expectations for her life, it is painfully obvious that representation at an elite level still matters more than ever. Sir Phillip Craven, former IPC President, describes the Paralympics as “the shop window of the movement”. Despite the ongoing struggle, the Games are redefining what it means to have a disability in the eyes of society.

Perhaps even more obvious in the documentary is the effect sport has on the athletes at a personal level. While a story exists behind every single astounding athletic performance featured on Rising Phoenix, there are very few people who would not be deeply moved by that of French sprinter/long jumper Jean-Baptiste Alaize. After miraculously surviving the horrors of the Burundi Civil War, Jean-Baptiste cites learning to run after his tibia amputation as an escape from his trauma; he follows up by saying “sport is what saved me”.

It is Jean-Baptiste’s words at the beginning of the documentary that continue to play over in my mind:

“We are all superheroes because we have all experienced tragedy.”

Not every person with a disability will have a story like this. Nor will they all have the sheer genetic talent and athletic prowess that Paralympians possess, and nor should they have to. Acceptance (and more importantly active inclusion via accessibility) should be afforded to people with disabilities irrespective of whether they define themselves as heroic or otherwise. But it is hard to deny that Rising Phoenix, and more broadly the Paralympics, plays a crucial role in combatting harmful societal beliefs held around disability. Society regularly heralds able-bodied sports people as heroes, watching in awe as they essentially defy what it is to be human (or at the very least take humanness to bewildering heights). To extend this heroism to Paralympians is to acknowledge not only raw talent but unbelievable resilience; a sort of resilience that is the product of moving through a world that, in both subtle and explicit ways, has denied your existence.

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In the same way that the Paralympics aims to redefine disability, Rising Phoenix has redefined the term ‘superhero’ for me. It turns out the ‘humanness’ I felt was missing from the archetype was actually essential to its fabric; that to be both ‘super’ and ‘hero’ wasn’t necessarily to turn green or have a troubled relationship with kryptonite, but rather to be confronted by the ugliest parts of humanity and still choose to see the good in the world. To be told to give up and instead choose to show others just why that was never an option.

Sure, they are faster and stronger and more skilled than your average person will ever be, but what makes a hero ‘super’ is not the absence of vulnerability but rather the very depth of its presence.

While I can’t say for sure if I will be lining up to see the next Marvel film, I will absolutely be tuning into the 2021 Tokyo Paralympics.


Watch Rising Phoenix on Netflix.

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