Craven’s superhuman efforts pay off as Paralympics finally claimcentre stage
Before he was a knight of the realm, long before he was standing beside Seb Coe at the opening ceremony with a curious world watching and wondering what was next, Phil Craven was a bearded bloke from Bolton sitting behind a desk on his first day in a new job.
The year was 2001, the desk was in Bonn, Germany, and the job was president of the International Paralympic Committee.
High up on his order of business was some face-time with the press but when the door opened to welcome them in, just a solitary soul walked into his office.
“He said: ‘Thank you for according me this interview. Do you know that my colleagues from other newspapers won’t come and see you? They don’t believe what you’re doing is sport’. He was basically saying, ‘I’m here but I’m not really all that sure why’.
“Then he warned me that he was going to be asking very tough questions. I said, ‘No problem, fire away’. But they just turned out to be straightforward questions about sport.
“I think he thought somebody in Paralympics wouldn’t be able to follow him or even to understand them. That kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore. That’s the conversion that has taken place in just over a decade. People know what we’re about now.”
As an educational tool, the summer just gone takes some beating. The London Olympics were laid down in front of them like a full house and they split the pot with one of their own.
By now we know the Paralympics were a watershed for Craven and his organisation, a declaration that things wouldn’t – couldn’t – be the same again. But the 62-year-old former wheelchair basketball player is a restless pusher of change, even down to simple irritants that pass the rest of us by.
“I’ve never understood the absolute overuse of the word ‘disability’ to differentiate what we were about from what normal sport was about,” he says. “And so I was absolutely adamant from the start that we drop the word.
“It hasn’t been easy, even internally. A huge amount of athletes still use it, still say ‘disabled sport’. But even that term itself means sport that doesn’t work.
“In order for me to convince people to stop using the word, it wasn’t ever going to be enough just to say, ‘Well, don’t say that’. What we needed to do was define what we’re about all by ourselves. We’re a sports organisation, we’re nothing else. We shouldn’t define ourselves by what we can’t do; we should only talk about what we can.
“I always refer to it as the D-word. I don’t even like saying it. Because you don’t need to. You’re talking about athletes, you’re talking about specific sports, you’re talking about pieces of equipment, you’re talking about rules. And if we have to use it, we use ‘impairment’.