1992 was the year that I found out what disabled athletics was really all about – the Paralympics. Just like able bodied athletics, its all about the opportunity which only comes around every four years for you to win the biggest prize, the one that every athlete dreams about. Every other medal and championship is secondary to a Paralympic games.
The Paralympics get their name from a combination of the words Olympics and parallel, as they run parallel to the big one. I must admit that I always get a bit angry when people refer to these games by any of the usual set of misnomers. “Are you running in the special Olympics this year Andy?” would be greeted with a short lecture about the fact that the special Olympics are for people with learning disabilities where everyone gets a medal regardless of their level of performance, as opposed to the Paralympics where medals are handed out on a purely performance basis, and the only people in my races with learning disabilities are the guide runners. Alternatively, people will refer to the games as the Paraplegic Olympics, or the Wheelchair Olympics. I have often pointed out that unfortunately I am not eligible for either championships as I am not a paraplegic or wheelchair user. Using the last two names is like a red rag to a bull, as often the perception amongst the public, whether in a sporting context or social context, is that being disabled is synominous with being a wheelchair user. Informing a receptionist that you would like to take advantage of the lower disabled entrance fee has on occasions been greeted with “well where’s your wheelchair then?” I often get irate people complaining that I have used the disabled toilet when I don’t use a wheelchair. Just for the record, I prefer to use a disabled toilet rather than the standard male toilets for two main reasons. Firstly, it is less likely that I will bump into the back of someone stood urinating, thereby causing them to either splash their shoes or their leg, or worse still, feel their bums as I’m trying to find the urinal. Secondly, it is impossible to get lost in a disabled toilet, but let me reassure you, it is not impossible to get lost in a normal male toilet – some of them are like rabbit warrens! A prime example being the loos at the Law Society; if it wasn’t for the Law Society President rescuing me whilst attending an awards ceremony, I probably would have still been lost in the bowels of the Law Society today.
It also annoys and upsets me when Paralympic athletes refer to themselves as competing at the Olympics. I know that for some they do this because they don’t expect people to know what a Paralympic games is, but to others it appears to be that being a Paralympian is not good enough. It is as though the term Paralympic or Paralympian imports some degree of being second class along with it. This is probably the reason behind calls from many people in disabled sport to merge the Paralympics with the Olympics, but you’ll never hear me espousing the virtues of such a move. I am proud to be a Paralympian. I do not want the Paralympics to merge with the Olympic games to give it credibility. It is quite credible enough thank you very much. The result would be such a watered down sanitised version that those calling for it would inevitably have no games to compete at. Only a tiny majority would get the chance to compete on the biggest stage in their chosen sport. This mindset is absurd to me. The majority of disabled athletes, and disabled people generally, spend a deal of time in our social lives trying to educate able bodied people that we have qualities and skills to offer society, that we are valuable in our own right and should be treated as equals, yet certain athletes act as though the only way to be treated as equal and receive validation is to compete at the same time as able bodied athletes, in the same stadium and in the same championships.
The Paralympics are held every four years about three weeks after the Olympics, or the test event as we like to refer to it; someone has to test out all the facilities for all the disabled athletes after all. The spread of sports is somewhere in the region of 18 or 19 different sports, with athletes competing in cerebral palsy classes, amputee classes, wheelchair classes, sometimes (depending on the current political preference within the International Paralympic Committee (IPC)) athletes with a mental impairment compete, and of course athletes with visual impairments.
I knew 1992 was going to be a big year. 3 to 14 September 1992 was etched on my mind’s eye, after all, it would be another four years before I would have another chance just to compete at the biggest festival of disabled sport, let alone a chance to win the elusive Paralympic gold. It became clear to me at the first Paralympic training weekend that everybody else felt exactly the same, and I don’t just mean the athletes. The coaches and support staff who would be involved in putting forward athletes for selection and who would themselves form part of the team management were clearly excited at the prospect.
J “Gladiators ready” A was a major force within the GB Paralympic set up as well as the British Blind Sport set up. JA was an important person to impress if selection for Barcelona was to be achieved. Therefore I was very pleased when he stopped me after a training session and said in his broad Scottish accent “you’ll be fine, if you can find a decent guide runner”. JW, having a very high opinion of himself and no lack of confidence in his guiding abilities, didn’t bat an eyelid. JA certainly knew how to motivate athletes and after every meeting we had as a group I always left feeling that my ability had increased just from listening to him. One thing that was for sure, if he was present at the track athletes worked hard. I’m not sure whether that was because you always felt like his eyes were on you, or because you could hear him shouting encouragement and abuse at you whilst running, or just because you were scared that his dog (which was the size of a small horse) was likely at any moment to run onto the track and chase after you.
Whilst away from designated training sessions with the rest of the squad I was working hard at the track in hull. BS, my coach since 1988, was working me hard with the intention that I would be able to run a good 100m, 200m and 400m by the September of 1992 if selected for Barcelona. JW was doing all of my training with me, and often I would wait until he had finished his sessions before he guided me. JW was just as motivated as I was. We both had a burning desire to be selected and this permeated into every session we did. If JW moaned that he was tired after doing his own session I would motivate him by mentioning the B word, Barcelona. If I got tired towards the end of a session all JW had to do was mention the B word and I used it to drive me forward to the finishing line on every run.
However, one issue still had to be sorted, and that was my classification. My sight had undoubtedly got worse since the European Championships only a few months earlier. In France I could see a bit of track when I was stood up, but now I couldn’t. By night my sight was different. I could see car headlights from long distances and street lights from some distance as well. But that was of no real utility to me. I wondered if my sight was now bad enough for me to compete in the B1 category without any feelings of guilt. My deteriorating sight had been commented on at training sessions, and team staff had suggested I spoke to the British Blind Sport classification expert, Dr IF, about my sight.
I rang DR IF and asked him what he thought. He told me to ask my mum to get four or five objects from around the house and hold them out about a foot in front of my nose and ask me to identify them. I was unsure as to whether the very small patches of colour and bits of outlines of shapes that I could make out were really what I was seeing or just part of the usual collage of colours and shapes that I could see. Whatever, I had no idea of what the objects were that she was holding up. Once she told me what she had been holding I realised that various bits of the images I saw could have been parts of the objects, but other bits still made no sense. There was no way I could identify them independently. After only a couple of objects Dr IF told me that I was a B1 and my classification had been taken care of. To this day I believe I am the only athlete to have had his sight classified over the phone. I think this way of carrying out medical examinations was a pre-runner to NHS Direct.
As a B1 athlete my chance of gaining selection had increased, as had my chances of winning a medal. I was in the midst of a paradoxical situation, I wanted to be able to see better, but I also wanted a better chance of winning medals. As the state of my sight was out of my hands I don’t suppose my views on the subject was either here or there, but I was aware of the absurdity of it all.
I was personally in no doubt that I would be selected for Barcelona, due to being in the easier B1 category (coupled with a hint of youful arrogance!) , but this did not make me rest on my laurels. Instead, it inspired me to try to improve enough to give myself a real chance of winning medals once I got out to the champs, and I worked as hard as I had ever done. The resulting early season performances were satisfactory and progress was definitely being made in the right direction.
Despite my self-confidence, it still came as a great relief when I received official confirmation that I had been selected to compete in the 100m, 200m, 400m and relays at the 1992 Barcelona Paralympics!! My new-found dreams were going to come to fruition!