The Invictus Games: How To Trigger An Inspiration Narrative That Benefits No-One


With the Invictus Games winding to a close, Sam Drummond reviews what we all got from it, and what it was really all about.

We have arrived, at last, at the end of the Invictus Games.

The week long event in Sydney saw 500 ex-service men and women from 18 countries compete in a variety of sports.

By its own reckoning, it “captures hearts, challenges minds and changes lives”. The Games certainly captured many hearts in Australia, with the ABC in particular rolling out full coverage.

There is no doubt that it changed the lives of many of the participants. But as far as I have seen, New Matilda seems to have been the solitary outlet actually challenging minds about the premise of Invictus, with an investigation into the funding of the Games by armament dealers.

The week and its lead up had an air of inspiration porn, as activist the late great Stella Young so eloquently phrased, in relation to the achievements of the athletes with disabilities.

In a moment of seemingly rare agreement in Question Time in our federal parliament, both Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the Opposition Leader Bill Shorten stood to support the games. In fact they couldn’t get to the dispatch box quickly enough.

Bill Shorten rose to “support our Invictus athletes wholeheartedly” – as he should – and suggested we revive the Australian Sports Medal. In supporting his rival’s idea, the Prime Minister noted, “The Invictus Games will inspire us all – they will inspire us all”. He went on to commend the work of Prince Harry for creating the event that “shines a light on the absolute courage of service men and women all around the world”.

The Prime Minister insisted “we will watch and we will be overwhelmed, but” – just in case you had not got the point yet – “most of all we’ll be inspired”.

It wasn’t just ScoMo gearing up to be inspired. In opening the Games in front of the Sydney Opera House, Prince Harry told the crowd “we have allowed ourselves to be inspired”.

At this point, the Games had not yet even begun. Is it even possible to be genuinely inspired before anything has even happened? What is it exactly that we are being pre-emptively inspired by?

Writing in New Matilda, Nick Deane argued that “it is highly inspiring to see the human spirit triumph over mutilations of the human body”. But going further than that, the Prince encouraged those listening outside Sydney’s biggest billboard to “allow the example of service and determination you will see, to change something big or small in your own lives”.

There it was – we were being encouraged to ready ourselves for that spine-tingling feeling, not just because of the determination of the participants, but because of our own shortfalls and insecurities.

This spectacle was intended, at least in part, for the general public’s benefit. It risks being the week-long equivalent of a photo of a person with a disability doing something perfectly unremarkable – such as playing sport – captioned “the only disability in life is a bad attitude”, or “your excuse is invalid”.

I have no doubt that the week had some excellent sporting achievements. Like when a helicopter flew over the Olympic Park Tennis Centre during a match. The whirring sound triggered the PTSD of wheelchair tennis player Paul Guest, a mine warfare specialist when he was injured over 30 years ago.

His playing partner Edwin Vermetten quickly realised what was happening and took Paul’s mind off the trauma by singing “Let It Go” from the film Frozen. The pair went on to win their contest.

However, the “overcoming adversity” narrative plays into the idea that disability is something lesser, and that the bar of achievement for people with disabilities is necessarily lower. And when the bar is lowered, discrimination becomes more acceptable.

The real-world impact of this for people with disabilities is destructive.

A child with a disability left outside of a classroom because they are too disruptive and unlikely to achieve anything. A woman whose had repeated surgeries for endometriosis is told by her doctor they cannot help unless she is “willing to try anything”. A future president mocking a reporter with a disability because he knows it will distract others from the journalist’s original story.

The backlash to the latter incident was a show of strength by the US disability movement. With 4 million Americans living with a service-connected disability, it is a movement that is indeed strengthened by the greater presence of returned war veterans.

As helpful as this can be on some counts, it need not be the case. The major risk when we explore the issues of disability and war is that it’s all too easy to conflate support for veterans with consensus on war.

Which is why it is so important take up the Invictus suggestion on challenging minds. As New Matilda has done, we should challenge the corporate support to the Games of armament companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Leidos and Saab.

We should challenge the fact that there are around 175 countries not competing in the Games, many of whose service people and citizens have borne the full brunt of war.

And we should challenge political support for the Games when it comes from the same decision-makers who send young men and women off to foreign conflicts.

This is the elephant in the Invictus stadium – none of it would be necessary if the athletes were not sent to war in the first place.

Politicians can stand up in Parliament to support the participants. But from Vietnam to Afghanistan, their often lock-step rhetoric on national security has seen young men and women sent to questionable wars with tenuous connections to our own safety.

When Paul Guest was able to overcome his PTSD, is that something to be simply inspired by? Or should we sit back and think about the possibility that the injuries sustained by people like Paul in the past could have been prevented by the people so eager to support them today?

Yes – let’s cheer on the athletes. But let us do so in a way that supports them, not us. And let’s do it in a way that prevents war from happening in the future.

Sam Drummond is a lawyer, former political adviser and disability advocate.