One big push on an incredible journey

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The Independent Online
Adwindling number of people may be aware of this, but there are other ways to raise money for a sporting cause than by putting on a mournful look and chaining yourself to the golden railings outside the National Lottery office. Chris Hallam and John Harris, however, are taking the other options to an uncomfortable extreme; propelling their wheelchairs 600 miles around the steep outer rim of Wales for five weeks of fund-raising during which they've generously allowed themselves two rest days.

Being two of Britain's top paraplegic athletes over the past 15 years, and among the more defiant and assertive ones at that, they would never have considered that the first step towards self-help these days is to reach for an application form.

On the other hand, it might be said that they are collecting their Lottery allocation at source; saving their benefactors the trouble of buying tickets, sparing them all those false hopes, allowing them to see exactly where their donation is going, and cutting out all the middlemen and assorted fat-cats.

Judging by the fact that they've been showered with loose cash amounting to over pounds 2,000 a day on some of the better stages of their exhausting odyssey, the public welcome the opportunity for first-hand financing of some good causes. It is difficult to resist forking out when you see them on a long haul up a Welsh hill, hands flailing at the wheels of their racing chairs and still managing to acknowledge the encouraging horn-blasts of passing lorries.

On the downward slopes they've reached over 40mph on their specially- built pounds 2,000 Invacare racing chairs and braking on the bends has seen them go through more tyres than Jacques Villeneuve. Flanked fore and aft by army escort vehicles - the Welsh Guards, Royal Welch Fusiliers, and local Territorial Army units such as the Pembrokeshire Yeomanry are taking turns to accompany them all the way - they do not end their efforts at their daily destination. Then begins their round of official functions and, more often than not, a lucrative trawl of licensed premises in which they've relaxed too eagerly on occasions.

But pushing a wheelchair with a hang-over is easier when you've raised pounds 470 in one pub, as they did at the Polyn, Nantgaredig, last Wednesday night. This is not the first time they've braved the hump-back delights of the roads that skirt their homeland. The pair undertook a similar journey in 1987 when they raised pounds 25,000 towards their dream; a Welsh sports centre for the disabled which is now built as part of the University of Wales in Cardiff.

Today, they will push their way out of Swansea on the 30th of their 37- day enterprise which they hope will raise pounds 100,000 for equipment and to increase awareness about disabled sport. They've both done more than their fair share in that direction.

Harris, at 51 the older of the two by 17 years, was paralysed as a teenager when he fell out of a fairground wheel. He won the discus gold medal at the 1984 Paralympics and has held world records in discus and javelin. A colourful character, subject of This is Your Life in 1986, he competed in the pentathlon event at the Atlanta games in 1996.

Hallam was 17 when he was paralysed below the chest in a motor-cycle accident two days before he was due to be selected for the Welsh swimming team. Two years later, in 1982, he won the 50m breaststroke at the World Disabled Games and was still breaking swimming records in 1995. Along the way he won the London Marathon wheelchair event in 1985 and 1987, was Disabled Sports Personality of the Year in 1986 and appointed MBE in 1988.

The most enjoyable part of their journey has been been the hundreds of youngsters, disabled and able- bodied, they've met. The lesson they hammer home to both sets of kids is that there's nothing wrong with disability. And whereas adults tend to see a wheelchair and immediately write-off the occupant, they're delighted that kids are inclined to treat them as athletes.

It would help to break down the barriers that influence our attitudes to disabled sportsmen if just two wheelchair events - the 800 metres for women and the 1500 for men - were to be included as mainline events in our major championships. In the Olympics and in this year's World Championships in Athens they are included merely as exhibition events.

Propelling a wheelchair is no different to riding a racing cycle or rowing a boat. Those who do it best are worthy of our admiration. No one could push harder than Hallam and Harris to get that point home.

Plugging into the patriotic voltage available from hearty renditions of the national anthem has long sent our football and rugby men roaring into the international fray. Now comes an appeal from the England vice-captain Alec Stewart for Test matches to be given the same inspiring overture.

Alas for Alec, even in a game as Establishment-conscious as cricket his idea has not been rapturously received. It has been pointed out, for a start, that the West Indies are made up of various countries and thus don't have an anthem; although I seem to remember a catchy calypso about Ramadhin and Valentine that would do rather nicely. Perhaps the game should create its own solemn anthem with a stirring first line such as "God Save the Follow-on".

There are many other complications. The teams would have to parade formally in their match attire at approximately 10.50, forcing most of the batting side to get ready early and miss valuable time in the dressing-room talking to the office on their mobiles. And what if it's raining? The anthems would still have to be played at the appointed time even if it meant the teams, umpires and officials getting drenched.

Besides, at football or rugby internationals the crowds are in their places well before the kick-off and rise for the anthems with a practised discipline. The average Test crowd, many of them at a doddery stage of life, meander in late and at their leisure. Just imagine if the first compelling chords of the national anthem were to sound as they were crossing the road outside, causing them to drop their picnic baskets and stand ramrod-straight on the spot. Alec Stewart would not, I am sure, like to be held responsible for the resulting carnage.

I IMPLORE all staff at the Heritage Ministry to keep a watchful ear out for any muffled sounds coming from cupboards or closets. I fear that the Minister for Sport, Tony Banks, has been bound and gagged and is being held incommunicado. When the new government breezed into office last month, the minister hit the ground running off at the mouth. Since then, he has disappeared from the sports pages without trace.

Has he said too much? Was he only hired for the football season? Or is there a more sinister reason? He was half-expected at the Central Council of Physical Recreation offices on Thursday where a vital paper "Grass- roots Sport and the National Lottery" was presented. The Lib-Dem sports spokesman, Nigel Jones MP, turned up but there was a big hole where a Banks bon mot should have been.