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.

The D-word

“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’.

“In classification, we talk about degrees of impairment, not degrees of disability. So that’s been the shift that I’ve wanted to bring about. From a disability organisation to a sports organisation.”

Words matter, he knows that. And he knows they played their part in the summer, getting the public onboard a ride they knew next to nothing about.

The famous Channel 4 Superhumans ad passed in front of his eyes long before the rest of the world got to see it and although he was a little queasy initially, he was soon convinced of the worth of it. “I actually said to them I’d prefer if they took the term Superhumans and separated the two words. Make them super humans, rather than superhumans.

Make people think

“Great people, great athletes but not above and beyond the rest of the population. But they’re advertisers and they know what they’re doing far better than I do in this regard. And that ad worked spectacularly well. I saw it before it went on TV and although it didn’t shock me, you knew straight away that it would stand out and it would make people think.”

The Games themselves passed in a bit of a blur. He was downed with a cold for a fair chunk of the opening weekend so he got to see the games the public got to see rather than the one he’d have experienced in a blazer.

When Channel 4 decided halfway through to keep all their coverage on their main channel instead of shifting most of it to More Four, he knew the seven years he and his team had put into it were coming to bloom. All the Games needed was for the public to take a taste and bite and then they’d swallow it whole.

When the lights went out and the flag was passed, anyone he met asked him if he was going to start planning for Rio straight away or take some time off. He’s smiled each time and shot back the same answer: “We’ve been planning for Rio for three years already.”

The Paralympic movement is no less relentless than its Olympic equivalent. You never stand in the same river twice.

“The next step is to find more athletes,” he says. “We always knew – well, we hoped but we had a pretty good idea – that these Games would be a beacon. We knew that they would grab people’s attention.

The next step

“The next step now is to get more people involved, to grow Paralympic sport and eventually to make a 180 degree shift from a caring mentality to an enabling mentality. That’s what we want to do and that’s what we will do.”

As for Craven himself, he has one more term to finish out as head of the IPC and then it will be a grandfather’s life for him.

At the Irish Paralympic Awards last Friday in Dublin, he told drinking stories from the 1980s of his time as a wheelchair basketball player coming over to play against the Dublin Panthers. Not quite the kind of thing you’d imagine spilling from the lips of Jacques Rogge.

“My life hasn’t changed at all, really. I know that after Beijing, I kept working right up to Christmas and in the new year, I just went into a black hole for two months. Not illness, not depression, just no energy at all. Now, I’m waiting to see if it happens this time. I don’t want it to.

“London was a higher high so this could be a lower low. But I don’t think so. I just loved it, all of it.

“No one wanted it to end. And the thing is, it will never end because the memories will always be there.”

Paralympic Awards: Irish Times journalist Clerkin receives bestwritten honour

Malachy Clerkin picked up the award for Best Written Media at the Irish Paralympic Awards last Friday night.

Clerkin, 34, reported on the Paralympic Games for The Irish Times during the summer and the panel of judges were unanimous in choosing him for the award. Of the five articles that made the shortlist in the category that was open to newspapers, magazines and websites, three were by him.

The inaugural Irish Paralympic Awards took place in Dublin’s Red Cow Hotel and were attended by Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Leo Varadkar and the president of the International Paralympic Council, Sir Philip Craven.

Double gold-medallists from the London Games Michael McKillop and Jason Smyth shared the award for Male Athlete of the year, while the Female Athlete award went to swimmer Bethany Firth. Hand-cyclist Mark Rohan – another double gold-medallist at the games – took the best Paralympic debut award and Wexford’s Darragh McDonald was the Young Paralympian of the year.

Dave Malone went into the Hall Of Fame and Anne Ebbs was presented with the Irish Paralympic Order in recognition of her 21 years as the driving force behind Paralympics in Ireland. Finally, RTÉ presenter Colm Murray was the recipient of the President’s Award for outstanding contribution to the Paralympic movement.

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