Before embarking on my year abroad, I checked my term dates to see if I was able to attend the Invictus Games Sydney 2018. Luckily, I didn’t have any exams and even though I was supposed to remain in Melbourne until the end of the exam season, I booked my tickets to arrive in Sydney two days after my last lecture. I honestly didn’t know what to expect from the Games. I had briefly followed them the previous year in Toronto but I hadn’t really seen much of the action. But what I was privileged enough to witness last October was the sheer strength, bravery, and resilience of our injured soldiers. I found myself in awe of the atmosphere surrounding the Invictus Games Sydney 2018 and what this meant for the competitors and their families. I was humbled by their positivity and optimism despite the horrors they had seen and the physical and mental impact of serving for their countries.
I went into the Games wanting to write match reports on each event. I wrote pages and pages of scribbles detailing every second of the games. It turns out that I spent more time writing down what was happening than watching the events unfold. I continued to do this for the next few days until I arrived late to the one of the events (I missed the direct train). I tried keeping an account of what was happening but having missed so much already I thought: ‘forget it’. And thank God I did. For the first time in five days I actually watched what was happening and allowed myself to be swept up in the emotions of the game. And this is when it hit me: these games are not about who wins and what country wins. It’s about the competitors, their stories, what the Games mean for them and what the Games have enabled them to become. I found myself rooting for every player and every team playing. I saw the spirit of the games embedded within several moments including, but not limited to: Kiwi George Nepata scoring a memorable try after a helping hand from the Aussie wheelchair rugby team; Edwin Vermetten singing Frozen songs to Paul Guest after a helicopter triggered his PTSD during a tennis game for which he obtained the “Above and Beyond Award”; and everything about the oldest competitor 67 year old Cavill Simmonds.
I was really lucky that I managed to meet some of the competitors. I met the incredible George Nepata who won the “Jaguar Exceptional Performance Award” after being forced to pay the entire wheelchair rugby match after a competitor dropped out. At the end of the wheelchair basketball match, I met the lovely Edwin Vermetten who told me he was only alive after a crash by a drunk driver because he wore steel armour only because of 9/11. I also met Dutch competitor Marc van de Kuilen. Kulien was shot in a friendly, a blue on blue in Afghanistan, by fellow teammate Luuk Veltink in 2008. This led to amputation of both of Kulien’s legs but both are friends are supported one another through the Games. Kuilen even told me that Veltink won silver in the rowing. Hearing these stories had me in awe of the resilience of the competitors and made me rethink the struggles I was facing. I’m not too sure how much coverage is given to the stories of our soldiers but these are what are important.
The Invictus Games were founded by HRH Prince Harry in 2014. Having Harry’s name attached to the Invictus Games is one of the main reasons why the Games are as big as they are. It is his involvement and his name which has allowed the Games to obtain the funding and the worldwide recognition that they deserve. He has been paramount to the success and the continuation of the Games. On the other hand, he, and now Meghan, are the reason why the Games have less attention than they deserve. And this is through no fault of their’s. Over the course of the Games, I found that public interest and media coverage was focused more on the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and I found this very upsetting.
When I Googled ‘Invictus Games 2018’, the first news results concerned Harry and Meghan. The very first article was: ‘Meghan Markle’s eco-friendly sneakers were one of the most popular products of 2018, proving the ‘Meghan effect’ is still going strong’. Almost every article will contain Harry’s and or Meghan’s name. Yes Harry set up the Games, but Meghan’s fashion choices have nothing to do with the Games.
Effectively, this ‘royal effect’ is both a curse and a blessing. As mentioned before, by having royalty attached to the Games have given them the worldwide platform that they deserve but this ‘royal bubble’ of media and public infatuation with the Royals takes the emphasis away from the competitors. After Harry gave his speech at the Closing Ceremony, tens of people started to leave the venue immediately after he finished even though Aloe Blacc was still yet to perform. After the Games, I spent a few days in the Blue Mountains and my 46-year-old roommate had also attended the closing ceremony and she kept going on about Harry and Meghan at the Invictus Games despite my reiteration that the Games were about our wounded soldiers and not the British Royal Family. Venues were at almost full capacity if there were school groups present or royalty present. When I went to the Indoor Rowing Finals, I was one of the very few members of the public present. The Quaycentre was half empty and most supporters were family and friends of the competitors.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the Royal Family. I’m a huge royalist but when it comes to things such as this, I find that it is incredibly upsetting that our soldiers are not getting the recognition and respect that they deserve for putting their lives on the line for us. I thanked every competitor that I met for their service. It didn’t matter whether they were British or not. And every competitor I thanked was pretty much in tears and one competitor’s reaction stood out to me the most. A Canadian competitor suffers from PTSD and is still actively serving. I remember thanking her for her service and apologising for the lack of attendance and support from the public and she was in tears because of how it felt for her to be recognised and thanked for what she has done. She was consumed by the emotion of a brown girl from the UK acknowledging what she had sacrificed. And I think it’s really sad that more people don’t thank them or recognise their efforts.
Anyone who knows me knows that I detest war. It’s a waste of life and I don’t see why innocent people should be drawn into a war that they didn’t choose to have. As far as I’m concerned, the politicians who decide their country should go to war should get into a boxing ring with the leaders of the country or countries they wish to go to war with and battle it out amongst themselves. The death or injury or wound of one soldier (or civilian) does not affect just that one person but their families and friends. Those who decide we should go to war can retreat comfortably back in their life of luxury without a worry. But our soldiers and their families can’t.
The Games have bought a sense of control back into these people’s lives. Not only do our soldier’s become the captain of their souls but the Games have immense mental benefits to the competitor’s and their families. What I’m trying to say is that you don’t have to support war to support our soldiers and veterans. And supporting our armed forces does not mean you support war.
Going back to Harry and Meghan, unfortunately, there is not much they can do. The presence of Harry is meaningful for the competitors and the non-attendance of Royalty would be a blow to the value of the Games and the competitors. Harry and Meghan have every right to be there and support the Games. They could try going incognito but security wise that would be a logistical nightmare and when the public find out the attention from the Games would be diverted to the Royals anyway. Ultimately, Harry and Meghan can’t really do anything. The media does have the power to change things. However, stories about Harry and Meghan will sell more and drive more traffic than those about the competitors. But seeing as the media heavily influences public interest, a shift in narrative by the media may be the only way to ensure that our soldiers are given the limelight and their stories are heard.
The importance of these Games is one of the reasons why I’m very disappointed with David Beckham, one of the Ambassadors for the Invictus Games. One would expect Beckham to be proactive, hands-on, and rallying for injured soldiers. But no. Under the guise of attending the Games, he used this opportunity for a family holiday. Instead of attending events and meeting competitors, he was busy soaking the sun at Bondi Beach, climbing the Harbour Bridge, quad biking at Glenworth Valley Outdoor Adventures, and playing tennis at the Sydney Olympic Park (where the Games were being held). One of the competitors I spoke to said that he hadn’t even seen Beckham and that was the penultimate day of the Games. To make matters worse, their trip was overshowed by Victoria Beckham’s devastation that he husband described their marriage as “hard work” and “complicated” despite every marriage being hard work. Beckham eventually made his first appearance 6 days after landing in Sydney on the 26th of October at the athletics and then on the final day of the Games to watch the basketball and the Closing Ceremony. I found this really upsetting because if the Games were as “special” as he said then surely he would have been at the side lines cheering on the competitors. If you look at Jason Richardson, England rugby union and rugby league star, he was courtside playing water boy, up-righting players, and he mopped the court. Richardson may be a Jaguar Land Rover Ambassador but he is not an official Invictus Games Ambassador yet he did more than Beckham. Richardson has worked closely with the British veteran team and has helped highlight the important role sports play in our veteran’s recovery. All Beckham did was make three appearances before retreating back to his holiday plans and $17m lavish mansion.
After the Games, I travelled up the east coast. At Cairns airport, I met a US war veteran. He spoke about the implications of serving, particularly how it effects one’s mental health, and how he was now being let down by the US government. You could see he was struggling. I told him about the Games and I told him how they helped veterans both physically and mentally. I had watched the pure determination of our wounded soldiers in overcoming and confronting their demons. I saw the impact these Games had on the mental health of our veterans. And I told him to try and see if he could participate. I said to him that I’ll see him in the Hague in 2020. I can’t remember his name but I do hope he partakes in the next Games.
The Invictus Games are more than a sporting event. They are more than a sporting event founded by Prince Harry. They are more than a sporting event founded by Prince Harry and publicised by ‘Ambassadors’ such as David Beckham. They are the arena in which our wounded soldiers come out fighting once again, but this time for themselves. In the face of all adversity, they conquer their demons to become the masters of their fate and the captains of their souls.
Thank you for your service and thank you for your incredibly display of resolve. You are Invictus.