Where are we going in blind sport?
This article was something I wrote immediately before I set off to Sydney to act as a support staff member to the British Paralympic Team. These were my first summer games, as I had previously attended 7 Winter Paralympic Games. I took over as the British Paralympic Association’s Chairman in 2001, so having said what I had, I then had to do something about building up the Paralympics in the UK to the prominent brand they now are!
At the turn of the century, British Sport and its sports men and women were in the ascendancy. As many of the sports became international (with the evolution of travel and the demand for a world-wide viewing audience with the invention of television), more people saw the phenomenal achievements of athletes in a variety of sports and some individuals became millionaires as the advertising value of sporting heroes was realised.
Britons, for example, were not only the first ski champions but invented most of the rules that governed skiing in its early days. If you then look at football, cricket and rugby the pattern was the same. Today, it feels that the rest of the world has caught up rather quickly and somewhat surpassed us.
In recent years sport for people with a disability has undergone similar revolutions. Not that long ago, most of the disability groups were complaining that the sports did not take on their responsibilities for sportsmen and women with a disability - especially at the elite level. Recently I have heard many complain of the opposite i.e. that everything was wonderful when the disability groups controlled elite sport for the disabled and things have gone pear-shaped with the involvement of the governing bodies. Similarly, there was virtually no central funding of disabled sport and everything had to be raised via charitable donations, fund-raising activities, raffles and the like. Now people complain that the mantra of lottery funding has ruined rather than improved the development of disabled sport.
There has, quite rightly, been a great emphasis placed on ensuring that our elite sportsmen and women with a disability have every opportunity to achieve their optimum but with scarce resources it is inevitable that in order to prioritise athletes at the top end of the spectrum, burgeoning athletes at the other end of the scale will lose out. The governing bodies do not yet have in place an infrastructure that will develop and harness new talent at child and youth levels. It is still often left to the school teacher and specialist clubs or disability groups to find and encourage athletes to stage with (no financial support), events and sessions for the talent to be tested and seen. All of this work has little or no funding and relies on luck and the endeavours of a few single-minded visionary individuals.
Sadly many of these committed individuals either because of age, discouragement or sheer frustration, are giving up or turning to more fruitful or self-centred activities. At a time when more and more potential talent in the visually impaired disability sphere is being diluted across the mainstream education sector, more and more effort is needed in order to introduce these young people to sport and then to build a support mechanism around them to take it forward.
Another problem is the linkage of major events such as world championships and Paralympics to money and numbers rather than standards or performance. You may be the best in the country at your event and do an acceptable standard but unless you are a medal winner you will not be selected! It often still falls to the disability groups to provide young athletes with their first experience of international competition. This could either be by organising events against other countries or accepting invites to participate in events organised abroad. All of this costs significant amounts of money which again has to be raised by the volunteers. This is becoming even more difficult than it ever has been as the public perception is that the Lottery will meet all the needs or that governing bodies will pick up the costs.
I am of course a realist in that there will never ever be enough money to do everything that we would want in relation to sport for people with a disability. However we must take urgent action now if prioritising success is not to be our ultimate downfall. If, as I hope and am fervently working towards, our team in Sydney are even more successful than any team before them, the bump will be even harder in 4 years’ time in Athens when we plummet down the winners table when we do not have the athletes in depth and as replacements for our ageing elite performers. Can we look around at the numbers of high quality 16 to 18 year olds in almost any and every sport and then say with any confidence that blind sport is producing tomorrow's champions? Events such as the BBS Champs and the Metro Games are down to pitifully low entries and there must be real doubt as to how much longer they can continue. Swimming championships also received very low entries which, like the athletics means that they are unattractive events for overseas competitors to take part in.
Is there anyone out there with the energy and inclination to try and co-ordinate the major disability groups to talk to each other and the governing bodies about how this vacuum can be filled and how the emergency action needed can be jump-started in order to ensure that the young athletes of today are tomorrow's winners and elite performers?