Don't leave it to the athletes

The Games in Tokyo can start big conversations, but real change happens when nobody is watching
By Tanni Grey-Thompson
Shiny jackets were a thing in 1988. When I think about my first Paralympic Games, in Seoul, that’s one of the first images that comes back to me. Shiny red jackets and banana-yellow jogging bottoms on a group of Team USA athletes arriving at the athletes’ village. There were so many of them. And they looked so shiny. 
I competed at five Games: Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney and Athens. And I was involved in the bid for and the delivery of London 2012. I have seen a lot of change – I’m not just talking about those tracksuits. There has been real progress around the Paralympic movement. As we prepare for Tokyo 2021, there’s a lot to celebrate – and a lot still to do.
There had been a giant leap forward from the 1984 Games to Seoul, although I only knew it at the time from speaking to the athletes who had taken part four years previously. The 1984 Olympics had been held in Los Angeles and were perhaps the most glamourous Games yet. The 1984 Paralympics – well, they didn’t even carry that name. Back then, the International Games for the Disabled were split between Stoke Mandeville in England and the Mitchel Athletic Complex in Long Island, New York, depending on the athlete’s categorisation. In 1988, for the first time, we were alongside the Olympics in every sense. 
I was 19. I had been to a World Championships. I’d travelled around Europe. But that was different. I could speak decent French; my German was OK. My dad always told me: ‘Understand where you’re going’. There were anti-American protests in the build-up to the Games and he had given me books about the Korean War and the recent history of the peninsula. But when I arrived, armed with a map that was long out of date, I couldn’t begin to understand even the simplest signs. I literally didn’t know where I was. 
Four years later, in Barcelona, people were coming out to see us, the stadiums were filling up for the evening sessions. In Atlanta in ’96, the media coverage was at a different level. In my last Games as a competitor, Athens in 2004, China sent a big team and came top of the medal table. That medal table had become as important to the Paralympics as it is to the Olympics. There were some bumps along the way, but every four-year cycle brought real change.
In the middle of all of this progress, I realised that, as the audience for the Paralympics grew exponentially, it didn’t always include a group that you might have expected to be at the very front of the movement: disability rights activists. 
For a long time, disability rights activists didn’t really like Paralympians. We were seen as sell-outs. By being athletes, we were seeking to negate the effect of our impairment. We weren’t recognising that we were disabled. The relationship between activists and Paralympians felt uneasy.
I had to prove myself to the activists; I had to prove I was authentic and that I cared about lots of the things they cared about. I came from a politically-aware household. My dad always told me I had an advantage over other disabled kids growing up: I had my parents fighting for me. My father threatened to sue the Secretary of State for Wales to get me into mainstream schooling. 
I was always interested in politics and how you affect change. For me, sport was a really positive way to affect change and give me the platform I now have. But when I was competing, I thought I shouldn’t have a publicly political position. It wasn’t until I was approaching the end of my career on the track that I began to use my platform in this way. And I haven’t stopped since. 
My work as a member of the Laureus Academy is a big part of this, and I believe in the words of our founding patron, Nelson Mandela, that ‘sport has the power to change the world’. Sport can do a lot – on an individual level and also a wider one. 
The work we do with Laureus on a local level changes lives. Let me tell you about a conversation I had with a young woman who was part of a boxing project. She told me she had always been in abusive relationships. Then she started boxing. She talked about learning discipline and motivation and the confidence this had given her. And then she said her boyfriend had raised his hand to her. There were so many things going through my head about what her reaction might have been.  Then she said: ‘I didn’t hit him. I didn’t need to. I stood up to him and I said if you do that to me again, I’m leaving you’. I was so proud of her.
That project fundamentally changed her life. And there are hundreds of these stories. I met young people in Rwanda who had been fighting in the civil war against each other and together they experience these life-changing moments through sport. 
By comparison, the Olympics and the Paralympics are a moment in time – an amazing, inspirational moment that allows us to have this conversation about what else we need to do. 
I am heartened to see athletes use their platform to enact change. Tokyo has already changed the conversation around duty of care and athlete welfare, particularly with the comments of Simone Biles around mental health. These issues have been seen as a sign of weakness in the past, incompatible with a winning mentality, almost forbidden to discuss. It’s interesting that now it is young women, like Simone and Naomi Osaka, who are talking about them. 
And this after a year where athletes have brought to the fore issues from racism to the pandemic response. When I think about my own experience, though, I’m aware that not all athletes will feel comfortable using their platform in this way – the stakes can be high and they need to be supported. Not every athlete can be expected to speak up on every issue or feel comfortable having a public view.   And not every problem can be solved by the words of an athlete, but their words do matter and they help people to think differently. 
Paralympians can be asked about far more issues that affect disabled people outside sport such as disability rights and government funding and some of them might not know the answers – I don’t have all the answers either. 
The Games can start the conversation about how we treat disabled people and how disabled people are integrated into the world. But it’s what happens between the Games that will bring change. It can’t just be the Paralympic movement. It has to government, backing it up with education and transport. In the UK, the disability employment gap is twice the national average. The International Paralympic Committee can’t fix that. 
When Elaine Thompson-Herah spoke after winning the sprint double, nobody asked her how to solve all the problems women face in society. But Paralympians do get asked these kinds of questions. The Games produce heroes, but they aren’t here to solve our problems. We have to do that for ourselves. 

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