Mike Rowbottom

Speaking today to some of the people responsible for Rising Phoenix, the documentary about the Paralympic Games that came out on Netflix in August, it was gratifying to note that the excitement accompanying its arrival appears to have been sustained and amplified.

While official viewing figures have not yet been made available, the film that the International Paralympic Committee's President Andrew Parsons called a "game changer" for the Movement has so far attracted more than 289 million Twitter engagements.

The width of its appeal is evident from tweets of appreciation from, among others, Manchester United and England footballers past and present, David Beckham and Marcus Rashford, multiple tennis Grand Slam winner Billie-Jean King, singer Rita Ora and French President Emmanuel Macron. 

The film has also been nominated for a music award at this year's Independent Documentary Awards.

Rising Phoenix, the film about the Paralympic Games released by Netflix in August, has been nominated for a music award at this year's Independent Documentary Awards ©Netflix
Rising Phoenix, the film about the Paralympic Games released by Netflix in August, has been nominated for a music award at this year's Independent Documentary Awards ©Netflix

What this documentary appears to have managed with unprecedented success is to make vivid and intelligible the range and intensity of Paralympians' personal experience.

As always, the devil is in the detail. And reviewing the interactions with the Paralympic Movement that have shifted me at least part way forwards towards a fuller appreciation of its meaning, it is odd details that stand out as points along the way.

Soon after the 1992 Paralympics in Barcelona I visited Birmingham's National Indoor Arena, which was hosting the 21st men's World Powerlifting Championships. 

Among those competing in the lightest categories of the event were two athletes affected by dwarfism - who would currently be within the T/F 40-41 class - Andrzej Stanasek of Poland and Sweden's Magnus Karlsson.

The squat lift element was particularly suited to their powerful physiques, and Stanasek set two world records in the 52 kilograms category. But the moment I could not forget occurred when Karlsson arrived with hands ready and chalked for his next effort, only to find that the hapless loaders had left the bar at the level required by the taller lifters in that class, which was too high for the enraged Swede to reach.

It was a graphic reminder of the actuality of disability. For all Karlsson's power, technique and will he was suddenly - albeit briefly - revealed in his vulnerability.

Shortly before he defended his 10,000 metres title at the 2004 Athens Paralympics, I spoke to Britain's Bob Matthews, who was dedicating his efforts in Greece to his late wife, Kath, who had died suddenly less than a year earlier from a brain cyst.

"After she died my immediate reaction was 'what's the point in anything?'" Matthews recalled. "What's the point in living? All of that stuff. But after a while I thought 'what would Kath have wanted me to do?' And obviously that was to carry on running."

Matthews, who competed in the T11 category for the totally blind, those who can see no shapes but have some perception of light, was accompanied once again in Athens by Paul Harwood, the guide who had run with him to 10,000m gold in Sydney, as well as 5,000m and marathon silver. Both men competed wearing pink ribbons attached to their vests.

"It's a dusky pink," said Matthews, who was born with a degenerative eye disease that rendered him blind by the time he was 20. "It's the colour of our bridesmaids' dresses, and of the cravat that she chose for me."

Matthews, who died in 2018 of a brain tumour, retired from track and field athletics after the Athens Paralympics. He failed to earn a medal in the 5,000m or 10,000m, finishing respectively sixth and fifth. But it was a noble and deeply touching conclusion to a career which had seen him earn eight Paralympic golds as well as six world titles and 22 world records.

Bob Matthews, right, pictured with his guide Paul Harwood at the Sydney 2000 Paralympics, where he won a gold and two silvers ©Getty Images
Bob Matthews, right, pictured with his guide Paul Harwood at the Sydney 2000 Paralympics, where he won a gold and two silvers ©Getty Images

Last year, I encountered another Para-athlete whose vulnerability and courage were similarly made clear - Norwegian sprinter Salum Kashafali.

Like Matthews, this athlete - who arrived in Norway as a refugee from the Congo when he was 11 - suffers from a degenerative eye condition. In his case it is Stargardt disease, which is expected, eventually, to claim his sight.

Life in Congo had been difficult and dangerous as a civil war had resulted in the death of millions of people and resulted in widespread disease and malnutrition.

"When I was a kid I was just trying to find food, like everybody else," Kashafali, then 25, told World Para Sport in June 2019, shortly after becoming the fastest Paralympian sprinter. "My childhood was not about running or playing football, it was about finding food - surviving."

In his first Para-race at Nottwil in Switzerland in May 2019, he set a world record of 10.58sec which he improved to 10.45 in the Bislett Games in Oslo on June 13.

Settled with his family in Bergen, where he teaches maths to 13 to 15 year-olds at a local school, Kashafali had initially made an impact as an able-bodied sprinter until injury kept him off the track for a year. During that time his eyesight worsened to the point where he was eligible to compete as a Para-athlete.

But in August 2019 he earned the rare distinction of competing for his adopted country against able-bodied opponents in the 100m, in the European Athletics Team Championships First League event Norway was hosting in Sandnes.

Before taking part in the heats, he told me he was now feeling comfortable in his new athletics environment after running for many years in open competition.

"People have been tremendous about me moving to Para-athletics," he said. "I've had a lot of support. To go from normal athletics to Para-athletics - I didn't know how it was going to go. You can't immediately see that I have a vision impairment. You have to look a little bit closer, to follow me a little bit, to see that.

"Some people thought I was faking - they didn't believe me at first. But most people have been very good and very supportive to me. 

"They know me now. I can be normal with people, with my fellow Paras."

He recalled the difficulties he had in running the 200m at his recent National Championships. "I got to the final, but when I came to the turn I was confused," he said. "'Where are the other runners?' Then I had to try and catch them up, but it was too late. I made a fool of myself.

"I will be happier running the 200 metres in Para-competition because then we have two lanes each."

Kashafali offered further evidence of his relative disability in the 100m heats, nearly missing out on a place in the final - where he eventually finished fourth - when he dipped too early because he had mistaken a line that had been painted shortly before the main finish line on the newly laid track.

"I wanted to execute my race better - I'm very disappointed with myself," he said afterwards.

However, as he arrived at the Sandnes Stadium the day after the 100m final to do some training and cheer on his team, he added: "One of my fellow athletes told me not to worry because the main thing was I got through. But they also said 'if you didn't make it to the final that would have been fine because we know what the situation is'.

"To have a team-mate come and say that to me - that meant a lot - that raised me back up."