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Tanni Grey-Thompson

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Tanni is Britain's most successful and best known wheelchair athlete. She has won countless gold medals and blitzes the London Marathon almost every year, amongst other events. In recent years she has been branching out into writing and broadcasting.

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Hold the back page!

5th September 2005

Disability sport is in its strongest position ever: the profile is good, Lottery funding is there, and we're successful. But there are nagging doubts in my mind that if we don't do something now to get more public recognition in the UK, then the last 10 years will all have been in vain, despite our excellent athletes.
Disability sport has moved on rapidly, and with it the media coverage. Proper reporting rather than cripply 'aren't they marvellous?' sports journalism has been there for a number of years now. Admittedly some print journalists revert to the 'triumph over adversity' way of writing because it's easy, but the general public is now more appreciative of disability sport then they have ever been. So what am I moaning on about?

In the last few weeks, I have been seriously thinking about the way that disability sport is perceived. Most of my anxieties over the future relate to one thing - the lack of coverage of wheelchair racer David Weir's amazing victories at the recent World Athletics able-bodied mainstream whatever-you-want-to-call-it Championships in Helsinki.

David won two gold medals in the 100m and 200m wheelchair races at the games ... so why wasn't his name splashed all over the papers instead of the few mentions he got?

If you do a web search you can read about it on the BBC site and on some disability pages, but it's ignored in the sports sections. The lack of interest is because he's a wheelchair user, competing in a demonstration event, and his medal doesn't count on the medal table anyway.

It got me wondering whether the media, and therefore the public, count him as an athlete at all.

How we measure the success of our athletes will in part be judged on the amount of media coverage they receive. If I'm being honest, then recognition is part of the reason that athletes take part. It's that ego that gets you to the start line, and makes you want to be there, beating the pants off everyone else and making sure that as many people as possible know about it.

So what's the real opinion of the public about disability sport - do they care, and should we be bothered if they don't? Are we still in the ghetto? And do the public really want to see what we do, or are they content with a couple of hours a year from the BBC - who get a certain amount of flak for covering it anyway?

I suppose the question that I want answered, is this: "Are David Weir's medals as important as, say, Kelly Sotherton's?" I think that I know the answer, but should I be upset about it? Many people think that rugby is more important than football for example, and I accept that wheelchair racing will always be a minority sport.

I don't mind if you don't like me as an athlete, or you don't like my sport, but I never want to hear that someone's achievement of beating the best in the world doesn't count. David Weir beat the best of the best, the top eight highest ranked wheelchair athletes in the world - and he did it twice at the demonstration events in Helsinki this August. That's an achievement worth marking.

I'm generally in favour of demonstration events, and have competed in a few of them myself. They originated in 1984 at the Los Angeles Olympics. They couldn't, or didn't, host a Paralympic Games that year, so two events were picked as parallel demonstration events - the 1500m for men and the 800m for women - and in to the Olympics they went. Being cynical, it's possible that these two events were chosen because the American disabled athletes were rather good at them.

The Paralympic Games were in such a fledgling state that they were actually held in two different venues (New York and Stoke Mandeville) that year. Many people fought to get demonstrations extended to other events like the World and European Championships, and also to extend the range of sports in order to give other disability groups the opportunity to compete.

I could spend the next 20 years debating all the relative merits of whether demonstration events are a positive benefit or not. You'll find that most athletes have a strong opinion, depending on whether their event is 'in' or 'out'. Overall they can benefit a sport hugely, increasing the media coverage and public acceptance.

I'm very lucky: I receive a good amount of media coverage, and as much as I annoy a lot of other athletes because of it, I have worked really hard to achieve it. But where do we go from here? Is this general low level of media attention going to be as good as it gets?

The London 2012 Olympics are only seven years away. My hope is that we can raise the profile and passion for disability sport in the UK by then. The best way for us to get more attention is to have many more people competing in athletics clubs all over the country. And although asking for more media coverage now might seem a bit back to front, when the public see that there is a broader competitive base, then the rest could follow.


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