Athletics: What place for the able-bodied in wheelchair racing?

This is the story of Daniel Sadler, one of Britain's best wheelchair racers. His sporting feats have made him an inspiration to disabled athletes everywhere. The only thing is, Daniel is not disabled. And don't think that it hasn't been noticed
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The Independent Online

When the athletes line up for the start of the London Marathon in a couple of weeks' time, Daniel Sadler won't be among them. He's been banned. Not that Dan intended to be one of the runners; he was hoping to complete the course in a wheelchair. And he stood a good chance of finishing with the leaders.

Indeed, he came third in the Great North Run last year. He could have won, he reckons, but he misjudged the tactics. He should have tried to keep up with the leader on an early hill, but he held back, assuming that the disabled man in the front wheelchair would tire on the flat, which he didn't. Still, Dan, proudly sporting his international Paralympics kit, crossed the line third and picked up a cheque for £200.

The trouble was that three weeks later the organisers wrote to him demanding that he return the prize money. He had not fulfilled the basic entry requirements of the British Wheelchair Racing Association (BWRA), which specify a minimum disability. Which was a polite way of saying that they had found out that Dan Sadler is not disabled.

"I never said I was," was Dan's riposte. The organisers replied: "We'd assumed that anyone in a wheelchair must be."

The ensuing row has riven the tiny world of wheelchair racing. On the one side stand those who regard Dan Sadler as a low cheat – "a morally questionable pot-hunter," as one insider put it, comparing his actions with those of someone "caught stealing the blind box from a doctor's surgery". Dark allusions are made to the mainstream athletes who pretended to be mentally handicapped to win gold medals for Spain in the Paralympics in Sydney two years ago.

On the other side are many of the disabled athletes themselves, who feel that having an able-bodied rival offers a tacit recognition that theirs is a proper sport and not, as one put it, some "consolation activity for sad people".

Dan Sadler's interest in wheelchair racing began when he was 12. His father, who had been disabled when he fell out of a tree at a similar age, had taken up the sport. "I used to go out with him in the evenings a couple of times a week and at the weekend," Dan said as we inspected his £3,000 racing wheelchair at his home in Chessington, Surrey, earlier this week. "Initially it was just a way for me to spend time with my dad. There had always been wheelchairs lying round the house and as a boy I used them as toys. It seemed natural to have a go in one of the racing chairs at the club my father founded at the Kings Meadow track near New Malden."

He found he enjoyed it and began to join in the races. "My first chair was what we called a bucket brommie, which was essentially just a fibreglass bucket with a wheel at each corner," the slight blond-haired 24-year-old recalled. "But when I was 15 someone let me have a go in their three-wheel chair imported from the States. That first time I used it was the first time I ever beat my dad." In 1995 he left school and got a job working 30 hours a week in a supermarket to allow him maximum time to train. Next year he did a full 12-race British road-racing championship season, and came third overall. In 1997 he entered the London Marathon and finished just five minutes behind the leader. "But then one day some guy I'd beaten went to the local press and it all started..."

The controversy has split the wheelchair world. The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) has banned him from all its races. By contrast, the BWRA, which regulates the sport in the UK, is backing him. "The IPC's position is that an able-bodied person can more completely train the body; it's easier to keep fit," says Kevin Baker, the chair of the British Wheelchair Sports Foundation. Able-bodied athletes such as Dan have plenty of other sports that they could take up.

Yet most disabled athletes disagree, according to Tanni Grey-Thompson, who won four wheelchair gold medals at Sydney 2000, and who is chair of the BWRA. "The BWRA more than 10 years ago decided it wasn't a problem for an able-bodied person to participate," she says. "People assume Dan has an unfair advantage. In fact there is none at all. He may have stomach muscles that work, but he's carrying more weight, he gets cramp in the legs, and he makes a less aerodynamic shape."

It is, she says, a tough sport in which upper-body strength is the key and in which, to reach speeds of up to 21 mph – which leave even the best two-legged marathon competitor 40 minutes behind the wheelchair winner – racers do lasting damage to their hands and leave their arms and shoulders feeling like lumps of stone. "The only way to succeed," says Grey-Thompson, "is to train your socks off and he has no advantage in that over many athletes with injuries to the lower spine." It is not, as one of Dan's supporters put it, that he is pedalling on the sly.

There are those who say she is biased. Dan was her training partner in the run-up the Sydney triumphs, which won her a runner-up position to Steve Redgrave in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year poll in 2000. (It was his status as her coach that entitled him to wear the official Paralympic kit that got him into trouble in the Great North Run.)

Yet Grey-Thompson insists there is far more to her support of Dan Sadler than personal loyalty. "It's about whether wheelchair racing is a rehab thing for poor disabled people or a proper sport. It may have started as a form of rehab, but it's no longer a ghetto activity." This philosophical underpinning is important to Dan Sadler, too. "The idea that you have to be disabled to race is a very backward and patronising view," he says, showing me his highly engineered chair. "This is not a wheelchair; it's an item of sporting equipment. The sport has come on leaps and bounds. The carbon-fibre wheels alone cost £1,200. If it was renamed tri-racing people might understand that."

Such suggestions would be stoutly resisted by some in the sport. "We've got nothing against Dan," says Kevin Baker. "It may just be Dan now. But if he was allowed to compete, what would there be to stop someone going into any secondary school and picking a group of students who you could train up to be international wheelchair racing stars within eight years? In a decade disabled people begin to feel at a disadvantage. They would find they had lost one of their few sports."

Tanni Grey-Thompson sees a wider issue. The row, she feels, reveals some instinctive prejudice, not just about the sport, but about how society views disability. "It is always seen as very negative. The model is always one of non-achievement. It's always 'the sad tragic life of disabled people'," she says derisively. "But I don't necessarily think of myself as disabled. I was lucky enough to have parents who brought me up to think I could do anything I wanted to. And my impairment has never stopped me doing anything that I wanted to do." Seven weeks ago, despite her spina bifida, she gave birth. "I have to do things differently, but I'm not disabled." It is people who have this negative view of disability who, she suggests, feel most threatened by Dan.

She gets some backing in this from Gordon Neal at Disability Sport Marathon, which co-ordinates the London Wheelchair Marathon. "The irony is that most of the race organisers who object to Dan are not themselves disabled," he says. "I don't want to be too critical. Many have come a long way. Wheelchair competitors are now allowed to start the race instead of tagging along at the end. They get prize money too now. They get their trophies in the same ceremony as other winners. Disabled sport has come a long way in recent years. But there is still a long way to go. People who think that Dan is cheating have to be educated as part of this process."

There is a precedent in his own sport, he says. Neal has long been a coach in sitting volleyball, where participants play from wheelchairs. "Because it's a team sport you'd not be able to find sufficient people to make up a team in most areas. So we allow a certain number of non-disabled in the team."

It's an approach he'd like to see extended in Britain's schools. "Too often kids in wheelchairs are left out because teachers don't understand how to include them," he says. "If only schools would contact us we'd lend a dozen wheelchairs to them from time to time so that non-disabled kids could get in them and the kids with disabilities could play a game with them on an equal footing." This would do wonders for the sense of self-esteem of the children with disabilities, and it would be helpful in the effort to combat the stigma that persists in the minds of the rest of society.

It is not the disabled who need to change, concludes Dan Sadler, but the able-bodied. "It's a long task," he says. "Recently I got an entry form for this year's Great North Run – probably sent out in error by the computer – and it still said on the bottom, 'BWRA minimum classification rules apply'. That is despite the fact that the BWRA has no such rules. Maybe I should enter again, just to see what would happen."