‘No event compares’: the Invictus Games shows its fighting spirit again

Play was held up at the Invictus Games on Thursday by a late arrival to the wheelchair basketball. Jelle van der Steen, a mainstay of the Dutch national side, had to make a late withdrawal from the tournament after he was hit by illness and forced into surgery. But as his teammates prepared for tip-off in The Hague the former marine was escorted on to the court – in his hospital bed – so he could share the moment. The Netherlands went on to beat Canada 23-10.

It was an incident that sums up the event, which is being staged this year for the fifth time. It sees former service people who experienced life-changing injuries in the line of duty compete in a number of adaptive sports. The Invictus Games is not short on spirit, endeavour or camaraderie, and in the Netherlands this spring – the event ends on Friday – it has grown in scale and prominence once again.

In the UK, the BBC has been showing daily highlights. One of the hosts of the coverage, the former Invictus athlete JJ Chalmers, explained what he saw as the Games’ unique appeal.

“I get to work on a number of crown jewel sports occasions like the Olympics and the Paralympics – but none of them really compare to this and I think the reason is because the medals are secondary,” he told British Forces Broadcasting. “In fact the sport is kind of secondary. All it is, is an excuse to get like-minded individuals from all over the world who have had similar experiences to share those experiences and rediscover themselves so that they can get that sense of service back again.

“It’s about putting your country’s flag on your sleeve but also putting your best foot forward, representing your country and community and having an impact on society. I think the level of education [the public] can get from this, when people are brutally honest about the experiences they have had, is unique to the Invictus Games.”

Team UK comprises 59 male and female athletes, selected and trained by the charity Help for Heroes. The selection criteria takes in performance metrics but also consideration of how an athlete’s physical – and mental – recovery from their injuries will be aided by participation.

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The captain of Team UK, the swimmer Rachel Williamson, suffered an injury in 2014 that caused her to lose the use of her right arm and led to a medical discharge from the RAF in 2016. A competitive swimmer in her youth, Williamson had once hoped of competing in the Olympics but feared she would never be able to swim again. However, she competed in the Invictus Games in Sydney in 2018 and won two gold medals in rowing and three silvers and a bronze in swimming. On Wednesday afternoon she won three gold medals and a silver in the pool, telling the BBC: “To finally represent my country is amazing, the medals are just a bonus. I just wanted to smile at the end and to prove that I can do it.”

With 17 participating countries and 10 sports in competition, the growing success of the games is vindication for their founder, Prince Harry. Headlines have followed the 37-year-old throughout the week but not all of them have been controversial. He has been ubiquitous in his role as chief cheerleader at the Games and a photo of him on the court, clasping the hand of Van der Steen in his bed, may perhaps prove the defining image of the week.