My Way to Olympia documentary review

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“My Way to Olympia” is a documentary available streaming through PBS’s Point of View here: www.pbs.org/pov/olympia. I urge anyone interested in disability politics to rush there and watch it before streaming ends on August 7th.

I don’t know about current disability culture in Germany, where director Niko Von Glasow is from. But I do know that the Nazis’ mass murders of mentally and physically disabled people was the model for their mass murders of Jews, Roma, and others they felt were threats their idea of human perfection. Von Glasow was born years after this but in its shadow.

To this day, in many societies worldwide, disability activists still work tirelessly (and while tired) to prove that we are worthwhile humans. We all do it in different ways. Some of us doggedly insist that the keys to achieving this are certain words (“disabled person” versus “person with a disability”), values (independence versus interdependence), and attitudes (promoting sheltered workshops versus encouraging self-pride while on SSI or SSDI), as examples. Some prefer to just get out there and do what they do, living by example in education, work, social life, sports, and more.

From the Special Olympics to the Paralympics, a lot of disabled people love sports. And some, like Von Glasow think they suck. While the U.S. can’t get enough of stories like “being blind doesn’t stop her from living life to the fullest!”, I want to flip that offensively condescending phrase: Von Glasow’s annoyance with sports and the Olympic games hoopla doesn’t stop him from traveling the world to follow several Paralympic contenders through training and competition.

In an opening scene, disabled filmmaker Von Glasow meets Grigoris Polychronidis, a Paralympian, during a boccia training session. One man there says “The most important is the participation, not the victory.” While this idea is at the heart of the global Special Olympics movement, it is very much not what Paralympics is about. (I would hazard a guess that asking randomly chosen people on the streets of the U.S. would reveal that many people don’t know they’re different. After all, we didn’t even air the London 2012 Paralympics over here.) Grigoris responds with a smile, “I disagree with that.” Even in training with a Paralympian, the perspective can still remain that disabled people are not “real” athletes or that they’re too fragile to handle the rigors of professional sports or to deal with the possibility of losing. Grigoris doesn’t have to preach to Von Glasow, his family, or the audience. He simply trains and plays hard, showing his skill and drive way more effectively than a monologue could.

The film is refreshingly and amazingly non-precious. A Norwegian table tennis coach says he doesn’t want to know what’s different about Aida Dahlen, a disabled athlete integrated into the national team. The coach sees her the same as his other players: capable of achieving at extremely high levels and of taking harsh feedback when she’s not performing up to par.

Though skeptical at the start, what Von Glasow uncovers from Polychronidis is that the desire to compete and the search for happiness aren’t different between disabled and non-disabled people. For Paralympians, competing is not necessarily a striving to prove they are human but rather to be an elite, competitive athlete. And though in dominant culture, people believe that level of impairment and independence directly relate to level of happiness, he argues they simply don’t. To this athlete, it’s loving and being loved, finding what you want to do in life and doing it well.

Von Glasow does a great service to the disability community by asking the athletes questions completely separate from their disabilities. This is not for the purpose of “seeing the person, not their disability,” another tired trope that disturbs me to no end. He does this because people are people, disability or not. And people have a past, histories, and tragedies in their lives (such as war) that have nothing to do with disability. In asking Aida about things like the Bosnian war (she left Bosnia when she was a young child), he subtly teaches audiences to question the common assumption that disability is inherently tragic in her life. It’s not. War is.
The filmmaker himself isn’t excessively nice, asking pointed questions and openly disagreeing with a coach for the Rwandan sitting volleyball team about what is important to Rwandans today or attempting to argue U.S. gun laws with an American who doesn’t want to see them changed. I appreciate this because we don’t tend to promote this kind of portrayal in the U.S. Disabled people–filmmakers or people in the film–are supposed to be positive, nice, supportive, and agreeable. Von Glasow doesn’t buy into that superficial treacle for a second. Hats off to him for that. And while I think it’s kind of awful for a German who’s only visited Rwanda to say that he understands Rwandan values better than an actual Rwandan person, I’m glad it made it into the final film. I would rather people see that painfully awkward scene than come away from the film thinking Von Glasow is a saint for filming disabled athletes. There’s nothing saintly about filming Paralympians, and nothing at all saintly about providing opportunities for disabled people, although I hear that one in my daily life too. It’s clear Von Glasow is not here to inspire. I’m glad. I think Disabled People As Inspiration sucks as much as Von Glasow thought sports sucked before he started the film.

I tried to write a short review and couldn’t do it. I have another 1000 words in me, but I don’t want to lose you, dear reader or listener.

Please visit the PBS website to watch the film as well as an interview with Von Glasow and what PBS calls “Classroom Clips” and more from the full movie at www.pbs.org/pov/olympia/additional-video.php.

Here’s the trailer, a fun, lighthearted glimpse into the film. And ultimately, despite the beginning of this blog post, “My Way to Olympia” is not a dark film, dissecting history. It takes Paralympic life one day at a time with great humor and style.