Veterans, not royals, make the Invictus Games

Ryan Pinney of the US during the men's discus throw at the Invictus Games, in Sydney.

Ryan Pinney of the US during the men's discus throw at the Invictus Games, in Sydney.Credit:AAP

Media coverage of the Invictus Games in Sydney has inevitably focused on the glamour of the visit by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, who brought international celebrity to the opening of the event.

Television images, which will be capped by the closing ceremony on Saturday, have gone out around the world. Sydney has, as usual, done an excellent job of hosting the games with our unparalleled facilities, and harbour and enthusiastic crowds providing the perfect backdrop.

But all that is really only a sideshow. If this week of spectacle is to have any purpose, it should rather be to highlight the reality of wars and the dignity of the veterans who fought in them.

The spectacle that descended on Sydney this week had its origins in an event based in the US called the Warrior Games, which has been held annually since 2010. It was created to offer a positive message to the thousands of US servicemen and women who sustained injuries fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Prince Harry, who served as a helicopter pilot in Afghanistan, attended the US games in 2013 and had the bright idea of extending it to other countries. His sponsorship was crucial in the launch of the first games in 2014 in Orlando, Florida, and it helped maintain the momentum that took it to London two years ago and Sydney this week. The Netherlands will host the games in 2020.


Yet the Prince's goal was not just entertainment but to offer encouragement and support for veterans dealing with the physical and mental consequences of war.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found recently that the suicide rate for former defence force personnel is 18 per cent higher than for the general population.

The games themselves can be an antidote. The Herald has tried to highlight in its coverage how the experience of taking part can help veterans adjust to their disabilities and find camaraderie, social acceptance and fun. For many of them, sport was an essential part of their training and lives before they sustained their injuries. Rediscovering that athleticism can be a balm to the soul.

For spectators, it is a reminder, just as the Paralympics are, of the incredible ability of human beings to overcome their traumatic circumstances. Events such as wheelchair rugby are a testimony to the unconquered spirit of servicemen after which the games are named. The New Zealand team's rendition of the haka was just as terrifying and eerie as the All Blacks.

When the games are finished, the legacy should be a long-term commitment to veterans, including providing them with decent pensions, help in returning to civilian work and treatment for health issues, both physical and the mental scourge of post-traumatic stress disorder.

What distinguishes these games from the Paralympics, however, is that the participants are there because of war. The games confront us directly with the consequences of being maimed by a roadside bomb or paralysed after a helicopter crash.

They should give the government food for thought each time Australia considers sending service people into harm's way. Many of the veterans have chosen to speak about the horrors of war and warned that a decision to commit troops should only ever be taken after the most serious reflection.

The ideal would be if former foes could come together in these games acknowledging their shared wounds, just as our former foe Turkey accepts Anzac ceremonies on its own territory.

Unfortunately, the world is not quite ready for that. The pool of countries represented at the games is still relatively small, although in these games it has grown to 18. Essentially the games are still mostly attended by the US and its allies. Iraq stayed away from the original games but chose to attend Orlando in 2016. It was a welcome sign that the animosity from the 2003 invasion was healing and Iraq's people were looking to the future.

This year, Poland and Ukraine have joined. Ukraine is currently fighting an undeclared war on its own territory against separatists backed by Russian president Vladimir Putin. Many of the Ukrainians sustained their injuries in the past couple of years.

Many individual veterans might be happy to forget the hostility of these wars and compete as fellow human beings, even against their former foes. But the reality of geopolitics means that the legacy of war still divides the world. Hopefully, the Invictus Games can give a small sense of shared humanity.

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