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Don’t use the term disabled, says chief of Paralympics, who is sure that unique spirit of the Games will make it as big a hit as the Olympics

Sir Philip Craven, head of the International Paralympic Committee, has been confined to a wheelchair since the age of 16 but within days of the accident which paralysed him he knew what he would do with the rest of his life.

“I never thought, why me?” he says. “Even my wife has said she doesn’t believe me but on the second or third day from my bed in the Southport spinal unit, I saw wheelchair basketball on the tennis court outside. Something must’ve clicked in my head: you can still do sport.”

Before his fall while rock climbing at the Wilton Quarries near his home in Bolton, Craven had played cricket.

“I could catch anything. I was incredibly fit and had hand-eye co-ordination,” he says. “So, when I lost my legs, that didn’t matter as long as I retained my arms. And, while I’d never played basketball, it was just the most amazing sport. Sport was the vehicle with which I could move forward and so I was always very positive.”

President of International Paralympic Committee: Sir Philip Craven, Image courtest of the Evening Standard

Sir Philip Craven- President of the International Paralympic Committee, image courtesy of Evening Standard

And it is this spirit which makes him convinced the Paralympics will not be overshadowed by the Olympics.

“Many people are already saying the event that will surprise the nation will be the Paralympic Games. Because the people attending will experience an incredible spirit of sport, maybe an even greater spirit of sport than at the Olympics. The Paralympic athletes are closer to the spectators, they’re more available, there’s more of an interaction than in the Olympics.”

Tickets for the opening ceremony of the Paralympics on August 29 — 17 days after the Olympics close — are still available but Craven is confident it will be a sell-out. That will be the moment, he feels, when the Paralympics can truly claim to be coming home.

“The Paralympics date back to 1948, when the Olympics came to London. Then, what became the Paralympics, were started at Stoke Mandeville by Sir Ludwig Guttmann. That’s where the Paralympic spirit started, on this small piece of ground sandwiched between the back of a big hospital and a railway embankment. When I first went there to compete in 1967, I thought, ‘What am I coming to here?’ The place was not attractive at all. But the people were amazing. And that’s what makes the Paralympics unique.”

Paralympics have come a long way but Craven knows what will make 2012 special. “At previous Games, Paralympics have tended to play catch-up, no doubt about it. What we have in London is one Games that will roll on from the other. The major development in the last 10 years is that we’ve moved from being an organisation that represented disability sport to being a sports organisation. There’s been an amazing movement forward.”

Craven, 61, can still be very sharp if he detects even the smallest sign of condescension. So, even as we started speaking at the Science Museum, he had ticked me off for describing the Olympics as the “main” Olympics. “You slipped up there, you should talk about Olympics and Paralympics.”

And he just cannot abide the word disabled.  “The term disability is something I don’t like. The use of the D word collects together some mythical group and marginalises them. We have to recognise that everybody is an individual. It doesn’t matter if you use legs and I use wheels.

“Don’t use terminology that gives a negative impression. If you need to talk about the blind, visually impaired, deaf or wheelchair users, no problem at all. What the blind person needs is completely different. What the deaf person needs is completely different. So get rid of that D word. I’d far sooner the word impairment was used.”

Craven’s views have been shaped by his experience through much of the Sixties and Seventies.

“Then, of course, there were no accessible cinemas, so where did you take your girlfriend? You had to get your mates to get you up the steps and get in a seat with your girlfriend before some idiot would come up and say, ‘You’re disabled so you can’t go in there, the fire regulations ban it.’ I’d say, ‘Forget the fire regulations, I’m going in there with my girlfriend, that’s more important.’ I’ve always been a fighter.”

His battles with cinema ushers paled in comparison to his clashes with British Paralympic officials. Selected for the 1976 Paralympics in Canada in wheelchair basketball, Craven’s frank assessment did not go down well.

“Jerry Kinsella [a fellow Paralympian] and I both got banned for life in 1977 because we’d objected to the way aspects of the British team were organised. They were not listening to athletes sufficiently. But, when Great Britain who’d been European champions in 1974, went down to ninth in 1977, I was invited back. Jerry said, ‘Until I get an apology from the organisers I will never come back,’ and he never did.”

Determined to change the way the sport was run, Craven became chairman of the Great Britain Wheelchair Basketball Association and he now says with pride: “Things just moved on from there. A main feature of the organisation of both the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics is listening to the athletes.”

But should the governing bodies not also listen to the public on issues such as the Olympic lanes and those for the Paralympics, which will operate on a smaller level?

Craven’s defence is the one given by all officials, the need to make sure the sports start on time. “Was it in Rome in 1960 when two American 100metres athletes didn’t make the final because of traffic problems? When you’re dealing with a city such as London, with a centre set up in medieval times or even before, you have to find a way. I remember in Athens, prior to the 2004 Games, being told the Greek people won’t respect the lanes. They did. I’m sure, in the end, the people of London will accept they must have them.”

He’s just as sure the Brits will understand why the Olympic officials have to stay in Park Lane hotels during the Games. “I don’t think we’re swanking around. We are not fat cats. You have to have a hotel of a certain size to accommodate everybody. It’s not something that we demand but I don’t see it as detrimental.”

It was seven years ago that London won the right to stage the Games. Naturally, Craven was ecstatic when the decision was announced — however, his French wife, Jocelyn, didn’t share those emotions.

“I was at the back of the room but, seconds after President Jacques Rogge took out the envelope with London’s name, I shot down the steps on my back wheels. I’ve never seen my wife more emotionally distraught except at family funerals because Paris had lost and London had won. And the guy who put his arm around her shoulder and said, ‘Jocelyn, that’s not too bad, don’t worry’  . . . Jacques Rogge.”

Craven is sure the British team will not need any consoling at the end of the Paralympics. “They have got a brilliant chance to maintain the amazing position they achieved in Beijing [second to China].”

He cannot see the Chinese being displaced but says: “Look at their resources. They spent £70million on a Paralympics training centre near the airport in Beijing. The Chinese are not stupid. They go in for the events where they have the best chance to win medals and they have many athletes in the sports that have most medals: swimming and athletics. There’s no doubt, they’ll top the medal table in London.”

And what pleases him is how this has changed the attitude towards disability in China. “It’s amazing. I had a call from a Singaporean-Chinese lady. She said, ‘This is the greatest thing that’s happened in China for 25 years.’”

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