“Not that she doesn’t recognize and understand the motivation of Black Triangle, the Scottish disability rights group which called for the boycott.”
Last month we reported on a call for an athlete boycott of the 2012 Paralympic Games. Now Britain’s best known former Paralympian Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson gives Ian Macrae her reaction and talks about her realistic expectations of what the Games will deliver in terms of the bigger picture
Baroness Grey-Thompson of Eaglescliffe’s understated certainty of that fact is backed up by reasoning which in turn is partly based on her own experience.
“As a Paralympian, if you go and you win, you have a better platform to speak from. And most athletes have such a limited career that you’re not going to boycott.”
Not that she doesn’t recognize and understand the motivation of Black Triangle, the Scottish disability rights group which called for the boycott. But, as she acknowledges herself, without her own Paralympic career, she would not be where she is today.
From her current position where she feels she is able to be both an ambassador for disability sport and a campaigner and advocate for disabled people’s rights, she’s able to see the complexities which can exist between sport and rights which confronted her and also present challenges beyond those in the sporting arena for today’s elite practitioners.
“There’s a massive education process needed for Paralympians. It’s quite hard for them while they’re competing to have an understanding of disability politics.
“I was interested in disability politics for a long time but just didn’t meet the right people who could make me realize that it was okay to talk about a social model of disability within sport. That’s because I’m not sure sport and the social model are always terribly compatible.
“One of the things I’ve been disappointed about over the years is that there’s never been that link between people who campaign for rights and those involved in disability sport. It’s because you’re arguing for two different things almost. In disability rights you’re trying to make sure that disabled people get what they deserve and need and, because of the current system, that’s about proving what you can’t do in order to get some support. Whereas elite sport is all about showing the world what you can do. And there’s the conflict.”
She believes too that some Paralympians’ view can be restricted by the fact that they spend a lot of time in the protective bubble which exists around elite sports people.
“When you’re an athlete, you’re interested in being an athlete. Understanding that wider remit is difficult. If you’re a 20-year-old who’s grown up in a sheltered sporting bubble and you haven’t experienced much discrimination, it doesn’t make much sense.
“Now we have much younger athletes achieving success, so they haven’t had experience of living in a big wide world to come to understand it.”
How does she feel about another facet of the relationship between disabled people and sport, the area of access to facilities and activities?
“It’s way better than it ever has been. But I still don’t think it’s as good as it should be. An awful lot of disabled children are still excluded from sport and physical activity in schools. And the figures for participation by disabled people more generally are not good.
“I still think there’s discrimination. I still don’t think we’re at a point where a disabled person can show up at a swimming pool or club and it’s all sorted.”
Moving on, what of the hyped and hoped-for legacy of the 2012 Paralympics? Some of those who might be said to have a vested interest in wringing maximum political juice out of the event have painted a picture of a capital city transformed overnight into a paradise of accessibility. Tanni Grey-Thompson’s expectations are more realistic.
“It’s different for transport as opposed to shops and cafés. Look at things like the Underground, and just the cost – I don’t think we should hide behind cost – but the cost of making an Underground station accessible is huge. You look at putting a lift in at, say, Green Park and it’s £100m because of everything that has to go with it. It’s not just sinking a lift shaft, it’s all the other work you have to do.
“What will also be a challenge come Games time is that people will come to London expecting a good level of accessibility based on all sorts of things which might be completely wrong. My concern is that people will come thinking that London’s really easy to get around, and actually, London’s a big, massive complicated city that’s difficult for lots of people to get around.
“By Games time, we have to have got to where disabled people can move around in the right way: whether that’s trained staff at a Tube station who, when someone in a wheelchair turns up, are able to give good accurate advice, even if that’s saying, ‘Actually, the Tube is not the best way to do it’”.
And finally, how does she react to the cynical view that the Games will have little significant impact beyond London, in the wider UK?
“That’s kind of realistic. When we won the Games, there was a view that the whole world was going to change. The realistic legacy is that London will benefit. But if Leeds or Middlesbrough want to benefit, then it’s up to Leeds or Middlesbrough to do something.”