BOOK OF THE WEEK: Racer triumphing against all the odds

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The Independent Online
Tanni - The Inspiring Story of a World Class Athlete

by Ted Harrison (Collins Willow, pounds 14.99)

It is difficult to draw conclusions or make judgements about a book devoted to such an emotive issue as disability sports, but the story of Tanni Grey brings two particular thoughts to mind.

The first is that, regardless of style or even mass appeal, Ted Harrison's book is a significant contribution to a debate that could, and should, rumble on throughout the first half of the next century.

The second thought, and one that could only occur to an able-bodied person ignorant of disability, is that someone like Tanni Grey would have been a winner even if she had not been born with spina bifida.

Grey, 26, is the most successful women's wheelchair racer Britain has produced. Four gold medals at the Barcelona Paralympics, world records at everything from 100 to 800metres and, last month, a third London Marathon title. She is an ambassador for her sport, and a pioneer.

The book itself takes us through the story of her early life, from the difficulties of her birth, the eye-watering health problems that arose (including the insertion of a metal rod in her back which, a few years later, snapped out at the bottom of her spine during a lecture at Loughborough University), and the frustrations of a British education system that still fails to differentiate between physical and mental disability.

During her career as an international sportswoman, which began in 1987, Grey has travelled the world; she has been feted and honoured and, since being awarded the MBE in 1992, seems to have spent more time at Buckingham Palace than she has at home in south Wales.

Apart from railing against the prejudices faced by disabled people in society in general, Grey's biography addresses many of her sport's thornier dilemmas: the difficulty of disability classification (Grey is a T3, where T4 is the least disabled and T1 the most severely disabled); whether or not to include able-bodied people ("walkies") and people with learning difficulties in wheelchair racing; whether the Paralympic Games should be separated from the Olympic Games; and, of course, the problem of drugs.

The penultimate chapter of the book ends with a look forward to the Atlanta Paralympics, and Harrison writes: "One thing is certain, the elite Paralympians will, without a doubt, put on a sporting spectacle as exciting as any that their able-bodied colleagues can produce."

No one has yet come up with a reliable barometer for measuring excitement, but if there is a criticism to be made of the book it is of the way in which wheelchair racing is sometimes presented as the greatest thing since sliced bread. Grey's sport has undoubtedly taken root, but she would be the first to argue for it to be judged on its own merits. And judged on its own merits, it should attain full Olympic status by the year 2000.

Adam Szreter