Sir Philip Craven: Meet a real straight-shooter

Emily Dugan finds that the Paralympic chief is rather more outspoken than Jacques Rogge, his Olympics counterpart

It is hard to imagine Jacques Rogge, the International Olympic Committee's rather grand president, living in a modest bungalow near Bolton. But, most of the year, that is where you'll find his Paralympic equivalent, Sir Philip Craven.

This weekend, Sir Philip transfers to London to prepare for the biggest Paralympic Games of his career. He will be relieved, and with good reason, that, for once, he doesn't have to fly across the world to get there.

Last year, while travelling on official business, he was told by easyJet check-in staff at Geneva that he was not allowed to get on a plane to Berlin alone. "From time to time you go from being a leading sports administrator, and someone who looks after their own life, to being a two-year-old," he says, recalling the incident. "I'm 62. I'm a knight of the realm, and I've got a wife, two kids and two grandchildren. And I've got this little idiot telling me that I've got to be looked after."

Eventually he was assigned to a family of strangers picked at random from the check-in queue to "help" him on to the plane. But it soon became apparent who would be doing the helping. "They had no idea about this particular part of the airport because they'd never been there before. I had to look after them, they weren't looking after me."

Sir Philip has never let his wheelchair get in the way of what he wanted to do. Just days after breaking his back in a climbing accident aged 17, he discovered wheelchair basketball, a sport he saw being played outside his window from his bed at the Southport spinal unit. In a matter of months he excelled in it, going on to represent Britain in five consecutive Paralympic Games.

Sir Philip's experience of using basketball to help his recovery has inspired him to campaign for sport to be reintroduced in the rehabilitation of spinal patients in Britain. "Before I broke my back, the strong part of my body was definitely my legs. I used to go fell walking, rock climbing, all that sort of thing, and really my upper body wasn't much cop. I bumped into one of my old spinal consultants last week, and he said: 'It was amazing. When you came in, you were this slip of a lad and then I saw you three years later at Stoke Mandeville with muscles on top of muscles.' But that's what you've got to do, you've got to replace something that doesn't work with something amazing that does."

Cuts to sports funding should not be a hindrance to expanding access to sport for those with impairments, he says. "I hear that there's less money. But this is not necessarily a question of more money, it's a question of changed attitudes. This is a question of the education of sports clubs and coaches that there's very little difference in coaching a wheelchair basketball player than there is a basketball player."

In Britain, it is south Wales that appears to have solved the enigma of attracting more disabled people into sport. "I would think, if you looked at the number of south Walians in the British team, you'd find that they had a disproportionately high number," he says. "It could be something similar to Yorkshire in the Olympics. Then you've got to ask yourself: 'Is this just because of luck?' Well, normally I don't believe in luck. I believe in people having good ideas and then putting them into action and not requiring a 300-page report that people only read the first 15 pages of, and then nothing ever happens.

"A friend of mine said: 'In Wales, we write down some plans on the back of a fag packet and put it into action.' In other parts of this Great Britain, they will write an incredibly long report and maybe nothing much happens. Decide what's needed and get on with it, that's what I say."

Unlike Rogge, whose deadpan delivery and political insistence on saying nothing interesting has bored millions of viewers of the Olympic opening ceremony worldwide, Sir Philip fires off his thoughts in a passionate, unmodulated Lancastrian burr. He says he has managed to shoehorn in mentions of Bolton and his basketball heroes into his opening speech – the sort of personal touches that would probably give Rogge palpitations.

Sir Philip often expresses opinions when others would dodge them. When I ask him what he makes of a British Paralympic Association media guide whose detailed instructions include a section telling journalists how they should talk to people with disabilities, he barks: "That's ridiculous. How do you talk to them? You talk to them like anybody else."

He is fervent in his belief that Britain needs to stop lumping together those with impairments as "the disabled". "People say: 'I've got this friend, he's a great guy. He's disabled, you know.' Why the hell do I need to know that? How many people add that one in. They'll probably say: 'He's disabled; but he's amazing, this guy.' Why don't they just say he's amazing? It's such a tradition of using that term. If an individual wants to say 'I am disabled', I have no problem with that; that's up to them to decide. But the term 'the disabled', what does that mean? It means nothing. Let's get to the point. It's not that I don't like using words, it's just I don't use this catch-all that catches nothing."

Sir Philip has been president of the International Paralympic Committee since 2001, which will shortly make him its longest-serving leader. But he has no intention of retiring before Rio. "People might think what a wonderful way to go out on a great Games in London, but I think the Games in Rio will be amazing again. I'd love to be there for another four-year term."

As he goes outside to have his photograph taken, he starts to reminisce about his early days playing wheelchair basketball. Recalling one of his first games when he put the brakes on someone else's chair so he could get past him, he chuckles mischievously at his own deviousness: "It made him go around in a circle and he threatened to break all the fingers on my hand."

He has a rusty hoop at the front of his house (much to his neighbours' chagrin) and he is still pretty nifty with a ball, dribbling it around his chair with dizzying speed. He may be an international sporting leader now, but his heart is still shooting hoops for Britain. He doesn't hesitate when asked what event he's most looking forward to: "I can't wait for the basketball finals. If GB won the gold and beat Australia in the final, that would be like seventh heaven."

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