Paralympic Perception

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson DBE

Eleven-time Paralympic gold medallist and parliamentarian

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson DBE is a British former wheelchair racer and current member of the House of Lords. She became one of the most successful disabled athletes in the UK after having been born with spina bifida. She is Chair of the Women’s Sports and Fitness Foundation Commission on the Future of Women’s Sport. She also chairs ukactive, a not-for-profit body that aims to educate the public on issues affecting their health and well being.

There is no doubt that the 2012 Games was a turning point for the Paralympic Games in its relatively short history. There was greater support in the lead up, during and beyond the Games that years before I could only have dreamt about. But how does the excitement of the Games translate into meaningful change, and does the perception of Paralympic transformation match the reality?

The first thing is to appreciate where we’ve come from. To understand the true impact it is important to look at the whole context of the Paralymic Games.

Back in the late 1800s there were reports of disabled people taking part in sporting activities, but very much as an “exhibition”. It could even be said that disability sport grew out of discrimination, and a whole movement was set up to allow disabled people to compete.

In the 1940s and beyond there were many who felt that disabled people couldn’t be an active part of society, let alone be “sporty”. Some early writings are almost amusing in explaining the shock many felt that disabled people even had a competitive spirit!

The first Paralympics (although they had a different name back then) took place in 1960 in Rome. With each four-year cycle more events and disability groups were added. It was the 1988 Seoul Games that brought them back “in parallel” with the Olympic Games. Around that time the attitude to disabled people in many parts of the world was still highly negative. However, it is the last decade or so which has seen genuine transformation and with each cycle the Games grow in stature and understanding.

The perception by many is that, following London, the Paralympics truly arrived. Dame Sarah Storey and David Weir became household names in the UK with their quadruple gold medal winning performances. However, in my view we are still waiting for a genuine breakthrough moment when Paralympians are known around the world. Oscar Pistorius was for years the
best known Paralympic athlete, but at the time this was mainly a result of his “crossover” to the Olympics. There are many other disabled people who have done this. Fellow South African Natalie du Toit did it in the 10km open water swim in Beijing but didn’t attract much coverage to go with it. In fact, there was a brief time around London 2012 when, if you were a Paralympian who wasn’t trying to be an Olympian, some people thought you weren’t trying hard enough.


Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson

So what’s missing? The public supported 2012 in an amazing way, but often we only see some of the athletes every four years and it can be easy for them to slip off the radar. I believe there’s an appetite for more. I believe integrated events have a lot of value and if you look at something like Wimbledon, it has been a really positive step forward in promoting the wheelchair division.

The tennis fans are already there, so let them see another side of the sport and build the fan base that way. It also takes advantage of sponsors and broadcasters already being on site for the rest of the tournament.

Finally, there are many opportunities to sponsor athletes or events but, personally, I believe this should be on sporting grounds and not as a CSR campaign.

If further integration is needed on the field of play, then nowhere is it needed more than the sports industry itself. We desperately need to ask: where are the disabled people as leaders in sport, sitting on boards, or in coaching roles? At the moment, the answer is few and far between. We have to ask: where is the voice of disabled people? Wouldn’t it be amazing to have some Performance Directors or CEOs of Governing Bodies who are disabled?

For the majority of disabled people, there also needs to be more opportunities to be ‘not very good’ at sport. There have to be more opportunities for disabled people to be physically active – rather than thinking about the elite pathway. As much as I am a huge fan of the Paralympic movement, sometimes if you are not on an elite pathway then it is hard to just find chances to participate. This needs to improve drastically.

“Where are the disabled people as leaders in sport, sitting on boards, or in coaching roles?”

If there is a way to go in sport, we also need to ask what the Paralympics has done for wider disability rights? Is it fair to expect ten days of a sporting event to change the world? The simple answer is no, it’s not.

In times of austerity, disability hate crime is at its highest levels. Lower level discrimination can be hard to identify at times, but for many it still exists and the coverage of disabled people who aren’t athletes can vary between ‘scroungers’ and ‘charity’ cases. Given the power of sport, part of the answer, ironically, is for us to see more disabled people in the media who are in no way related to sport. We are a long way from the days of Ironside on the TV, and in the last couple of years there has been much greater diversity of actors and presenters appearing on our screens. However, this is still a great opportunity to improve perceptions.

There is still a glow that exists around London 2012 and wider Paralympic sport. Even after Rio, I am still stopped in the street and asked about London. The medal performances definitely helped and the Games engaged a different level of consciousness. It does feel that we are on the cusp of something very different, but we need to be bold and take tangible steps to raise the profile and benefits of disability sport.