Among the retired footballers and coiffured graduates of drama schools who dominate the sofas of sports television, Arthur Williams is a breath of fresh air. He had never thought of himself as a sports broadcaster. Five years ago he was a 20-year-old Royal Marine heading home to camp when an accident involving the car in which he was a passenger left him paralysed from the waist down.
Since then he has learned to drive, fly a plane and ride a bicycle at high speed, all without the use of his legs. And from next week he will sit in front of the cameras as one of Channel 4’s main presenters in its coverage of the Paralympic Games.
He feels a weight on his shoulders, most of all in a sense of responsibility to those taking part in the Games.
“It’s not about me or about Channel 4 getting a pat on the back, it’s about those guys, the superhuman ones,” he says. “I do care about what the audience think and what the chiefs think, but if I have an athlete come up to me and say ‘I wasn’t happy about that’ I will be heartbroken.” Williams, 26, gave up a place with British Cycling’s development programme for the Paralympics in order to pursue the chance of amplifying the importance of the event itself to the television audience.
“It was a bloody hard decision to make but if you’ve got a chance to represent the Paralympians – who aren’t represented anywhere near enough – and be a voice for them and initiate change, then you’ve got to seize the day.”
He had demonstrated his sporting process by winning the Birmingham wheelchair half marathon after training with Paralympic athlete Mickey Bushell.
But then Williams’ lawyer sent him a clipping about Channel 4’s talent quest for Paralympic presenters and a teasing note saying: “Arthur, put in for this because you’re not bad looking and you’re a gobshite.” After a “speculative” approach, Williams found himself doing interviews, screen tests and finally a “boot camp” in preparation for his television debut next week.
“Flippin’ heck, I’m a Marine so it wasn’t really that tough,” he says. “They liked to think it was boot camp and they had the lights on in the dark and it was all very Hollywood and late nights – but I pushed my boundaries in ways I didn’t think my personality would stretch.” He got the job and will work alongside experienced presenter Georgie Bingham, offering his specialist knowledge of Paralympic sport.
“She can be a representative of the audience because she is learning this with all of you guys back at home and she can ask me the questions that everybody is thinking.”
Williams praises Britain’s “open-minded” society for being “really well-placed” to help Paralympics grow. He hopes that after the Games people will attend other events at Stoke Mandeville, Crystal Palace and elsewhere. Real impact, he says, would be “two blokes in an East London pub debating who is better over the [Paralympics] marathon, Dave Weir or Kurt Fearnley, rather than talking about football”.
He points out that his friend Mickey Bushell, a world-record holder, barely has 1,000 followers on Twitter compared with Usain Bolt’s 1.7 million following.
“It’s just not right to me. A disabled person still has to put in six hours of training every day and maintain their diet, manage their medication and the logistics of simply getting from their bed to the training court.”
He would also like to see more disabled people take up activities. “Although we see 4,200 amazing athletes competing, there are still probably 95 per cent of people with disabilities who don’t get into sport – that’s the change I want to see,” he says, adding that he knows how hard that journey can be. “I spent 18 weeks in anger management and the last thing I even wanted to think about was sport.”
This is Williams’ big opportunity in television and he hopes it leads to new broadcasting opportunities. But he has not abandoned his ambitions in sport. “With the introduction of triathlon in Rio 2016 and my competence in wheelchair-racing, hand cycling and swimming, I’d like to give that a crack.”
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- Mark Cavendish