Where are the Superhumans? Despite the glorious success of the London 2012 Paralympics, its organiser Chris Holmes is still fighting for equality
Chris Holmes says that he and Stephen Hawking talked about the world beyond being able-bodied
Monday 16 December 2013
One ended with fireworks and The Who singing “My Generation”. The other ended with fireworks and Coldplay singing “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall”. However, while Sebastian Coe was forever asked about the legacy of the London Olympics, Chris Holmes, the man who oversaw the Paralympics, rarely was.
With fewer than 100 days to go before the Winter Paralympics open in Sochi, one wonders whatever happened to the Superhumans? Hannah Cockroft, who won two gold medals, was in the Sports Personality of the Year spotlight on Sunday but even she has seen her sponsors drop away.
Volleyball in its Paralympic (and Olympic) form, has had its funding cut – the latter by 87 per cent, the other to zero. Aaron McKibben, who plays table tennis in a wheelchair, is now supported by a south London estate agents, James Pendleton, with £400 a month.
When the New Year Honours came out, one gold medallist, Jonnie Peacock, wondered what David Weir, the owner of six Paralympic golds, would have to do to earn a knighthood. The British Paralympians won double the medals and received half the honours.
In those same honours Holmes received a peerage and, like Coe, he now sits on the Conservative benches of the House of Lords. At the age of 14, he woke up suddenly and frighteningly unable to see, the victim of a condition in which the retina folds and tears as it grows.
He refused to compromise and asked to be taken to the City of Birmingham Swimming Club, where he demanded the same treatment as those swimmers who could see. Seven years later, his skin dried and his hair blond from the chlorine, he won six swimming gold medals at Barcelona and added another three at Atlanta and Sydney.
As a non-executive director of UK Sport he argued for the principle that every gold medal prospect, whether Olympian or Paralympian, should be given the same levels of funding. “It caused,” he said, “a hell of a discussion.”
He won a place at Cambridge and then studied commercial law with BPP University and the day after taking up his seat in the Lords he is in Manchester to open the university’s refurbished offices. There is a glass of champagne in his hand, so it might be the moment to ask if the London Paralympics were nothing more than a swell party.
“Even if it were just a sensational party, it would have been well worth doing and a price worth paying,” he said. “But there was so much more. We knew that, if we got it right, we could change people’s perceptions of disabled people. But the research we conducted afterwards showed it was tentative and fragile and would require all of us to keep pushing.
“You ask where are the Superhumans? The legacy of the Paralympics needs to expand out of sport and into all the other areas. What the Paralympics demonstrated was not just the extraordinary achievements of disabled athletes but of disabled people.
“One of the things I had to do was pick up the phone to Stephen Hawking to ask him to be part of the Opening Ceremony. There, he talked about the possibilities beyond our universe. There is a world beyond being able-bodied.
“It should be a given that able and disabled young people have precisely the same opportunities to access sport and society.
“The stat that really kills me is that, if you had the same employment opportunities for disabled and able-bodied people, there would be another two million disabled people in employment – a waste of talent, year in, year out.”
The Winter Olympics in Sochi has been bedevilled by many things, from the Russian government’s treatment of homosexuals to the possibility there may not actually be much snow. The Paralympics is set to attract the largest entry for any winter Games but it is likely to be watched by very sparse crowds.
There is always the danger that the Paralympics will slip back into the shadows. When Holmes won his first Paralympic swimming gold medal in 1992 – which, as a blind man, he remembers as something very big and very heavy being hung around his neck – he was interviewed by BBC Radio, who asked what it was like competing in a wheelchair. “I told him that, since I couldn’t see too well – and was a swimmer – it was bloody dangerous.
“Bear in mind that when Moscow won the race to stage the Olympic Games in 1980, they wrote to the International Co-ordinating Committee, who were the forerunners of the International Paralympic Committee, and said they were unable to host the Paralympic Games because there were no disabled people in Russia. After Seoul in 1988 there was a one-hour programme on the BBC broadcast two weeks after we came back.
“In 2012 it covered all the front pages on day one and day two. Day three we were on every front page bar one, and the one that didn’t had a story about Cheryl Cole’s knickers. Sometimes, you can’t compete.
“When I took on the job, I knew we could stage a great Games and I believed we could sell all the tickets,” he said. “Then I was presented with the first research that came back that showed zero per cent of the public were ‘strongly likely’ to buy a Paralympic ticket. I had 2.75 million to sell. I have never worked so hard in my life. When I trained as a commercial lawyer with BPP you got used to long hours. As a swimmer, you were used to the alarm going off at 4.40am. This was both.”
It was the same refusal to compromise that led Holmes’ team to sell out the Games. Sainsbury’s and BP, who put pictures of the Paralympians on the sides of their tankers, were not asked “plaintively” for support and nor were they told it would be second-best to being an Olympic sponsor.
“We told them it would fit in with their business plans and we were right. I wasn’t surprised it worked but I was delighted by that sense of sunshine, of passion and of love. The Olympic Park was just one great golden smile that rippled out across London. Conversations actually broke out on Tube trains.”
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