When Queen Elizabeth II opens the Paralympic Games in East London’s new Olympic Stadium on August 29, she will be doing more than welcoming 4,200 athletes from 160 nations who have come to compete in 20 sports, from cycling to swimming. She will also be welcoming the games back home: In 1948 the Stoke Mandeville Games, a competition whose athletes were World War II veterans with spinal injuries (and that was named for the U.K. hospital where they were rehabilitating), ran concurrent to the London Olympics. Four years later the Mandeville Games sparked the first international competition, the precursor to the Paralympics, held on a scratch of turf sandwiched between the hospital and a railway embankment.
But it isn’t only the size of the games that shows how far the Paralympic movement has come over the past 60 years. The scope has grown as well. Today the mostly volunteer-run International Paralympic Committee (IPC), through its Agitos Foundation, also engages in education and grassroots development of athletes around the world.
In charge of it all is Sir Philip Craven, president of the IPC, member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and a five-time Paralympian in wheelchair basketball. This member of the Order of the British Empire—he earned the title in 1991 in recognition of his work for wheelchair basketball—knows elite competition. At the age of 16, Craven broke his back in a climbing accident near Bolton. "After the accident I went to the spinal unit at Southport, and a few days later I saw some people in wheelchairs playing basketball," he recalled in a recent interview with Lancashire Life. "Something registered in my head." Within a decade he’d been made captain of the British wheelchair basketball team in the International Stoke Mandeville Games. He went on to win gold medals at the Commonwealth Games (1970), the World Championships/Gold Cup (1973), and the European Championship (1971 and 1974). In 2001 Craven, who for many years led the Great Britain Wheelchair Basketball Association as chairman and the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation as president, was elected president of the IPC—a post from which he has overseen Paralympic Games in cities from Beijing to Salt Lake City. RL talked with him about what to expect from this year’s Paralympic Games, playing at the top of your game, and much more.
RL: Are there any athletes and events we should be sure to watch at this summer’s games?
SPC: Jerome Singleton. He’s an engineer, a single-leg amputee, and one of the nicest blokes you could ever wish to meet. Oscar Pistorius could be under real threat from Jerome Singleton in the 100- or 200-meter sprint. That’s one big event I’d encourage people to see. Also, there’s my own sport, wheelchair basketball. Men’s and women’s Great Britain teams have a good chance to medal, and for the women it would be the first time ever. But I love each of the sports.
It can be difficult to capture the spirit of the Paralympic Games on television. Are there any past moments that stand out for you as emblematic of the games’ spirit?
At the opening ceremony in 2008, Hou Bin, a Chinese gold medal–winning high jumper with one leg, lit the Paralympic flame in the Bird’s Nest stadium by using his arms to climb a rope to the stadium roof. For anyone this would be an amazing feat, but Hou did it in front of 85,000 people in the stadium and billions of people watching on TV. He was also sitting in a wheelchair and, unknown to many people, had a broken finger. To [watch him] climb a rope from the stadium floor to the roof with a broken finger rubbing on the rope, and with a flame on his chair, was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. That was the Paralympic spirit in action.
Are you seeing rising numbers of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan competing?
Yes. We already saw it in some of the winter sports when we were in Vancouver in 2010. We have a charity called Help for Heroes, and they’re doing a lot for veterans through sports.
But there are many, many more people who either through illness or a traumatic accident are injured every year—more than what’s going on in Afghanistan or Iraq—and I want to see that they also benefit from what sport can do. Whether they become Paralympians is not really important; [what matters is] that they get physically fit enough with the limbs that they have left to make sure they can live an active life.
You competed in the Paralympics in wheelchair basketball five times, from 1972 to 1988, before taking on leadership of the sport in Britain. What was it like?
Your abilities are just the same—it’s just what you use to achieve. One of the greatest quotes I ever heard was from Donna Ritchie, captain of the Australian women’s wheelchair basketball team in 2000 in Sydney. She said, "Paralympians don’t worry about what doesn’t work. They don’t have time to worry about what doesn’t work. They just get at maximizing what does work." That, in essence, puts what a Paralympian is about. But we’re no different; we’re sports people. Simple as that.
What are some of the most exciting moments of wheelchair basketball games that you played in?
In 1994, toward the end of my playing days, I was playing for a team, the Sheffield Steelers, when we became the first from Great Britain to win the European Champions League, the biggest prize in European club basketball. I was the oldest player on a team of young kids, really, and even though many of the opponents were better than us technically, we had amazing team spirit, which acted as an extra player for us.
In the final I was on three fouls within the first 12 minutes and was defending against their top scorer. Somehow I managed to not concede any more fouls for the next half hour or so, and this helped us win the title.
There has been some talk recently about the advantages prosthetic limbs grant to athletes—particularly among sprinters. For instance, in 2008 the International Association of Athletics Federations, or IAAF, banned Oscar Pistorius from competing against runners without prosthetic limbs in the Olympic Games, because they felt his prostheses were such an advantage. What do you think?
Oscar is an amazing Paralympian, and the fact that so many people are obsessed with talking about his blades, I believe, detracts from his superb achievements. The simple fact is, Oscar has run on the same blades for the last seven years, and during this time he has knocked 2.5 seconds off his 400-meter personal best.
Oscar’s only advantage, like all Paralympians, is his burning desire to be the best athlete he can possibly be.
"We’re not against Paralympians crossing over, as the media always picks up on it and this helps showcase to a wider audience what athletes with an impairment can do."
— Sir Philip Craven
Aside from this particular controversy, would you like to see a crossover in competition between para-athletes and other competitors?
Oscar is not the only Paralympian who takes part in able-bodied competition. Another South African, Natalie du Toit, took part in swimming at the last Olympics, and Ireland’s visually impaired sprinter Jason Smyth, who can do the 100 meter in just over 10.2 seconds, competed in Daegu [South Korea] at the IAAF World Championships last year.
But when you look at the full cross section of Paralympic disciplines, there are very few [athletes who] can cross over into other competitions; for example, a wheelchair racer cannot take part in an IAAF-sanctioned competition.
We’re not against Paralympians crossing over, as the media always picks up on it and this helps showcase to a wider audience what athletes with an impairment can do. However, we have to appreciate that only a small percentage of para-athletes can cross over to able-bodied competitions due to the nature of their impairment.
Several months ago you told the BBC that the word "disabled" should be banned from our lexicon. What term do you think is a better fit? Differently abled? Para-athletes?
I am against the d word, as it marginalizes a section of society, which is wrong. It’s a negative word, so why do we have to look for a replacement? Why not just get rid of the word altogether? Why can’t we talk about athletes taking part in sport?
Rachel Somerstein is a freelance writer whose work has been published in ARTnews, n+1, Next American City, and WIRED.