Who better to cover the Paralympics, the international sporting event for athletes with physical and mental disabilities, than the world's best-known disabled filmmaker? Born with severely shortened arms as a result of his mother taking the drug thalidomide in the late 1950s and early 1960s, German director Niko von Glasow has charted an enviable film career, transitioning from making coffee for famed director Rainer Werner Fassbinder to directing his own award-winning movies (NoBody's Perfect, Wedding Guests). In My Way to Olympia, Niko is at his comic and heartfelt best.
In the opening shot, the filmmaker declares that "basically I think sports suck, and the Paralympics is a stupid idea." Yet his rumpled sincerity and warm-hearted skepticism are irresistible. As the story unfolds, his own stereotypes about disability and sports get delightfully punctured.
Niko's distaste for athletics is rooted in his frustrations as a disabled child forced to play sports. Moreover, without having yet attended the Paralympics, he wonders if they are "a big show to disguise the big problem between society and disabled people." So he sets off, sometimes accompanied by his 14-year-old non-disabled son, Mandel, to meet a few of the top Paralympic competitors and to follow their fortunes as they prepare for and compete in the 2012 games in London. He questions why those for whom daily life is such a struggle would put themselves through such ordeals. Is it all a feel-good exercise?
Norwegian Table Tennis Player Aida Dahlen. Credit: Niko von Glasow
What Niko discovers is a group of incredibly adaptable, determined and optimistic people performing athletic feats sometimes more astounding than those of regular Olympic athletes.
The American armless archer Matt Stutzman was born with a defect similar Niko's and competes with a specially adapted bow he operates with his feet and teeth. Matt lives in Fairfield, Iowa, with his wife and three young sons, and he fires his powerful arrows straight to the bullseye in some of the most amazing sports footage anyone will ever see. Niko and his able-bodied teenage son can barely lift the bow, yet Matt uses it to win enough competitions to provide for his family. A staunch supporter of American citizens' right to bear arms, Matt shows off his rifle skills and counters Niko's argument that in Europe, very few people die from gunshots, by pointing out that Europeans just stab each other with knives instead.
Niko begins to learn that Paralympic sports are less about disabilities than about being the best at something--the same reason every athlete in the world competes. He goes on to meet Norway's one-armed table tennis player Aida Husic Dahlen, the entire Rwandan sitting volleyball team and Greek paraplegic boccia player Greg Polychronidis. Aida's moves quickly make you forget she's missing a limb. The Rwandans lost their feet (and in some cases their legs as well) to land mines and other weapons during their country's civil war. Greg, who suffers from muscular dystrophy, competes entirely with his head while seated in a wheelchair.
Fascinated as he is by the athletes' ingenious methods, Niko isn't shy about questioning their motives--or bringing up more intimate subjects, such as sex, depression, fear and death. Far from being put off by the filmmaker's candor, the athletes respond with enthusiastic explanations and demonstrations, and not a little candor of their own.
The director's conversations with the Rwandans, who deal not only with missing limbs but also the traumas of brutal civil war, are touching, funny and instructive. Niko asks one of the players who on the team is Hutu and who is Tutsi. The man claims not to know, and insists he's never been asked. Surprisingly, the young Rwandan refuses to talk about his country's divided past, which Niko likens this to his own Jewish father's refusal to talk about Nazism after World War II.
Similarly, when Niko learns that Aida from Norway was originally an orphan of the Bosnian War, he's amazed to find she has never looked at images of that conflict or of her childhood before she was adopted. Matt the archer was adopted at birth, and even though he knows his biological parents, he has never asked them why they chose not to keep him. Niko begins to feel that perhaps it's better to leave painful questions and memories unspoken.
Niko sees that his questions about early death can pause but not dim the love that surrounds boccia player Greg and allows the wheelchair-bound athlete to go for the gold. He has an extremely warm and welcoming family--his coach is his father--and they say that they are helped and enriched much more by having Greg in their lives than he is helped by them.
Niko's skepticism softens as he increasingly identifies with the athletes and their struggles. And while no one expects him to sign up for a sport any time soon, he develops admiration for his subjects and a new, slightly-less-curmudgeonly respect for the world of Paralympic sports. By the time Niko and Greg travel together to the Greek city of Olympia, they are so close that Niko instinctively bends to put a hand on Greg's shoulder as they proceed down a ramp into the world's first Olympic arena. They begin to play boccia in the ancient Olympic dust -- only to be told that sports are prohibited at the site.
My Way to Olympia is a fresh and fascinating take on the often-sobering subject of disability. It's also a fresh and fascinating take on humanity's common and persistent trait--the will to win. In fact, as the credits roll, Niko quips in his usual barbed way that his working title for the film was Triumph of the Will, Part 2.
"So many people, myself included, live in denial of their weaknesses," says Niko. "These athletes are confronting their disabilities head-on, striving to conquer them. A man with no arms doesn't have to take up archery, and his life would be much easier if he hadn't. The more time I spent with these athletes, the more I understood that they aren't just trying to be 'as good as' non-disabled athletes.
"I found the Paralympics altogether more interesting, fun, human and inclusive than the Olympic Games," he continues. "As my relationships with my subjects became more intimate and, at times, more intrusive, I realized that Paralympians are much purer examples of the original Olympic spirit than many able-bodied Olympians. You can't become a Paralympic athlete without totally embracing the ideals of togetherness and shared participation. Even I, who will certainly never win Paralympic gold, found myself caught up in that spirit, and unable to resist taking part."