Tanni Grey-Thompson: The trailblazer who is still fighting for recognition

The Baroness won 11 gold medals and set 30 world records, and she has retained her competitive edge in the House of Lords, where she will attack the Government's 'horrible, unfair' benefit cuts for the disabled. Alan Hubbard meets Tanni Grey-Thompson

Tanni Grey-Thompson – she says she still has to stifle a giggle when she is addressed as Baroness – will be in the BBC radio commentary box when the Paralympic Games begin on Wednesday. However, one imagines many of her listeners will be happy if she is asked to leave the mic for a few moments to take a starring role in the Opening Ceremony finale. She has always been the torch-bearer for the Paralympics, so no one is more deserving to do the honours at the flame-lighting ceremony.

More than anyone, she has raised the status of disability sport in this country to an unprecedented level. There is such genuine public enthusiasm that for the first time in their 52-year history the Paralympics will be a sell-out.

"I can't wait for them to start, I'm completely exhausted already, but so excited," she tells me during yet another breathlessly busy week charging up and down the country. Have wheelchair, will travel: that has always been the motto of the sporting icon, working mum and now campaigning politician whose name is synonymous with successfully challenging adversity.

"They are going to be amazing but after the Olympics there is such a lot to live up to, and I don't just mean about the medals – the organisation of the Games was just out of this world.

"I am just blown away by the ticket sales. This time last year you just would not have believed it possible that they would sell out. If you look at Atlanta and even Sydney, not a huge number went and watched them. There were big crowds in Beijing, but they gave the tickets away.

"I have always thought there would be a big support for a Paralympics in London but there's a difference from just turning on the telly to watch them to putting your credit card down and paying to go.

"I don't care if people are coming to the Paralympics because the tickets are cheaper or that they couldn't get them for the Olympics, the point is they're coming, and London 2012 has got the balance exactly right between the two Games. Like the Olympics, these will be the best Paralympics ever."

She says her main hope is that, like the Olympics as well, they will inspire young people to say, 'Yes, I can do it'. Tanni has been in a wheelchair since she was seven years old, having been born with spina bifida.

"I hope that if a young disabled person turns up at an athletics club they will be told, 'Well, we've never had disabled athletes before but we're going to try and do something with you'. I want these Games to inspire inclusion.

"I also hope they will encourage people to be more open-minded and not just look at the disabled and think they are benefit-scrounging cheats. They should think to themselves, 'That could be me in five years'."

Apart from her 5 Live stint, Tanni says she will be doing "a few bits and pieces" during the Games. Though she isn't quite sure what. In view of her iconic status she does seem to have been somewhat underused by the organisers of the Games. Would she like to have been more involved? "I'm really happy with what I've done up to now," she says. "I've sat on a couple of Locog committees and made some promotional videos, so it will be nice just to go along and watch, even though I'm working while I'm doing it. I feel quite privileged about that."

So high-profile has Paralympic sport become that it embraces not only some of the intensely competitive and professional aspects of its able-bodied counterpart, but also the less savoury, such as doping.

A director of UK Athletics, Tanni chaired a review into drug-taking. "There will always be people who cheat, from politics to sport. Of course, it is nowhere near the same problem in Paralympic sport, and for a while there was a view that disabled athletes didn't cheat, but regrettably some do."

One of them, the one-legged Italian long-jumper Roberto La Barbera, the 43-year-old European champion, last week completed a two-year ban for using Ben Johnson's drug of choice, stanozolol, to become eligible for the London Games.

There have been times when Tanni's relationship with the British Paralympic Association has been fractious, her outspokenness getting up the noses of the blazers. "The BPA and me have always had differences of opinion and I wasn't always kept in the picture in the past, but under this new regime things are brilliant, couldn't be better."

Since retiring from competitive sport five years ago, Cardiff-born Tanni, 43 – who won an unparalleled 11 Paralympic golds, set 30 world records and won six London Marathons – says she is busier than ever. "I am fortunate that I have found so many things to do in life to replace athletics.

"Nothing can ever be the same after you have competed at such a high level but all this gives me a great buzz – something that is meaningful and, I hope, productive. Life's chaotic these days, but then it always was."

She says it is fortunate her husband, Ian, a doctor of chemistry, a sports scientist and a coach, is able to work from home and in a position to look after their 10-year-old daughter, Carys. Typical of her bluntness was her response to one inquisitor who asked how a wheelchair-bound paraplegic managed to conceive: "We had sex like anyone else."

That frank speaking has certainly made an impact at Westminster, where as Baroness Grey-Thompson of Eaglescliffe she will be wrapping the ermine cloak around her once again as she returns to the political fray at the House of Lords in October after the summer recess, warning that from next April, when the benefit cuts to the disabled start taking effect, "I shall be very vocal".

Britain's greatest Paralympian led a revolt in the upper house against the Government's welfare reform bill earlier this year and was narrowly unsuccessful while earning the acclaim of fellow peers, among them the Tory Lords Coe and Moynihan. "I know that when I get up to speak, as I do quite often, some of them look at me and say, 'Oh no, not her again!' But that's what I'm there for, to speak up for sport and for disabled people. These benefit cuts are going to be just horrible, just horrible, and so unfair."

Invited two years ago as a People's Peer, Tanni surprisingly elected to sit as a cross-bencher despite being an ardent lifelong Labour supporter. "It wasn't an easy decision," she admits. "My political views are left of centre but I think there are a lot of advantages of being a cross-bencher because you can vote with your heart, and in any case I believe that sport should be non-political.

"My passions are sport, women in sport and disabled people, and they kind of end up not being political, so I can put a bit of a different spin on it. I am not there to spout about things of which I have no previous experience, but I am an ex-athlete, I am a mum and I have a disability, so all that combines to give a different perspective.

"It was a deep desire to help make positive changes that first drove me into politics when I was a student [she has a degree in political sciences from Loughborough University] and this still burns as bright as ever. I've had many challenges in life and sport but going into the House of Lords is probably the greatest ever.

"Health is one debate that immediately jumps out. And not just the many problems regarding disability. Change also needs to be instigated in issues ranging from assisted suicide to care in the home and the legacy of London 2012.

"The whole thing about the sports legacy after the Games is going to be interesting, particularly the vexing situation on school playing fields, which makes me very cross.

"The Games have been the fairy dust, it is not up to Locog to drive any changes forward, it's those in sport themselves, MPs in Parliament and those of us in the House of Lords who speak on sport like Colin, Seb, Baroness Sue Campbell and me who now have a massive role to play, together with people on the governing bodies. They just cannot accept that things are going to continue to happen in the way they have."

She says she would love to be involved in one of those administrative bodies, and there are several situations vacant, such as the chairs of a merged UK Sport/Sport England and the British Olympic Association. Tanni could fit comfortably into either.

"Yes, I'd be happy to be given some sort of role" she says. "As you know, I've always got some opinion on sport. But whether people want to listen to it, I don't know."

Ever combative, she has been highly critical of the way sport is administered. Has she mellowed? "I doubt it. I still get frustrated at the hierarchical order of British sport, the school of, 'We'll do it this way because we've always done it this way'. They could do so much more, not with money but with attitude. Sport needs people at the top who really understand what it is about."

With women rising to the top in sport and the Paralympic Games looking all set to be a huge triumph, could the bold baroness even emerge as future Labour Party sports minister? It would be an inspired choice.

As would the one this week, when hers surely has to be the hand that lights the fires of London's Paralympics.

The new Tanni – and the new face of London

Her name is Jade Jones and, like her Olympian namesake, she is gold-medal material and potentially a poster girl of these Games.

Taekwondo's Jade Jones was Britain's youngest Olympic gold medallist. By coincidence her 16-year-old namesake is Britain's youngest Paralympian, a Middlesbrough schoolgirl and wheelchair wizard who is being hailed as the new Tanni Grey-Thompson. Which is appropriate, as she is a protégée of the actual Tanni Grey-Thompson, and will be racing in Tanni's old wheelchair.

Coached by Tanni's husband, Ian, and advised and mentored by the supreme Paralympian herself, Jade is now No 4 in the world, though she says: "These are my first Games and I am really here for the experience. Rio is going to be the big one for me, but of course my ambition is to win gold in London."

Before Beijing, Tanni mentored another top British wheelchair racer, Shelly Woods, who won silver and bronze there. She spotted Jade at a disabled schools sports meeting three years ago and saw her potential.

Tanni says: "She's had some amazing races this summer, over 100, 800 and 1500 metres, and she has beaten Shelly just before the Games. She's doing better times now than I did at the height of my career, so yeah, she could just make it, she's a really smart young girl. My husband is really impressed with her."

Like Tanni, Jade has been disabled from birth, born with a missing upper leg. "I used to have a false leg but didn't like it so I use crutches now," she says.

Under the Grey-Thompson stewardship Jade has won five Junior World Games golds – at 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1500m. She also set a new junior world record for the 1500m in Switzerland and holds the British 400m record.

"When I first met Tanni I didn't know who she was, which sounds terrible," Jade admits. "She was a special guest at the event and I'd no idea that she'd won all those Paralympic medals until someone told me.

"She invited me to try wheelchair racing and lent me her chair when I first took up the sport. I'm still racing in it. It was pink but I've had it resprayed white with pink flowers. I thought it was time for a change.

"Tanni has so much to teach me and I'm desperate to learn. She's got very high expectations because she was such a successful athlete but I like that, it motivates me.

"My performances over the past year have been really good but I can't take anything for granted. It's just a dream to be part of London 2012.

"I don't want to let myself down – and I don't want to let Tanni down."

Alan Hubbard

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