Hannah Cockroft: Para-athletes don’t have equality in sponsorship deals

Hannah Cockroft
Cockroft is a 10-time world champion

Five-time Paralympic gold medallist Hannah Cockroft is upset at what she considers an inequality between Olympic and Paralympic athletes.

The biggest gap is in sponsorship, with Cockroft losing four backers following the end of her seven-year unbeaten run at major championships last year.

The 26-year-old is unbeaten in 2019 but she does not even have a kit sponsor.

"In terms of sponsorship, we're no way even close," Cockroft told BBC Sounds podcast Duvet Days.

She finished second in the T34 100m at the 2018 World Para Athletics European Championships in Berlin and the outcome was drastic.

"Last year, because I won a silver medal, I lost four sponsors," she said.

"If you compare it, the majority of able-bodied athletes who haven't even won a medal still sign thousands and thousands of pounds-worth of deals."

In 2019, business spending on sports sponsorship is set to grow by 4% to £35bn globally, according to agency Two Circles.

But the disparity between what able-bodied athletes and para-athletes receive is significant as para-athletes can expect to get no more than a fraction of that £35bn.

Cockroft, who cannot afford to buy herself a new chair, believes the lack of personal sponsorship is affecting her profile and is hampering her chance to be a role model to the next generation of aspiring youngsters.

"Having someone who supplies your kit, who wants you to wear that kit to every training session and every race, to me that's when you've made it," she said.

"I look at it and I think I've won everything that I can win. There's one race that I haven't performed at my best in 11 years, and there's no one that wants me to represent them on the track.

"I have so many kids come up to me and say 'I'm going to be the next you'. But then I think if I still can't get equality, then how am I ever going to change it?

"I'm obviously not a big enough name to be worth that kit deal. Things like that definitely need to change.

"Because we can change the way people look at disabled people, we can change their perceptions. The world needs to become a lot more equal and a lot more accessible."

Embracing her chair

Hannah Cockroft
Cockroft says struggling to afford a race chair is "a situation that all Paralympians are in"

Perceptions of disability are something Cockroft has struggled with herself. Duvet Days focuses on mental health and difficult personal experiences, and Hannah admits that she wasn't always happy about needing a wheelchair.

"Until I started sport, I saw a wheelchair as a symbol of disability. It was a sign of the things that I couldn't do," Cockroft said.

"So I didn't actually get a wheelchair until I was 15. I didn't want one. We had an NHS one but it wasn't nice, it wasn't pretty, it wasn't easy to push, it wasn't accessible. So I just left it in the corner and held on to people.

"I lived in such an able-bodied world, I didn't feel the need to stick out more."

But Cockroft changed her mind when she saw what a wheelchair could do.

"I discovered sport when my school brought in a basketball team, and that's when I first saw other people with disabilities, when I was 12," she added.

"They put me in the basketball chair and it was totally different to the one I had at home: it was quick, it was light, it was moveable. It was everything.

"That's when I started to see wheelchairs as more than just something for old people or people who can't do things for themselves."

Dealing with coming second

Now, Cockroft is instantly recognizable as a wheelchair sprinter, and she admits that being a champion in her sport is her meaning in life. But, as she told Abby Hollick, there have been times when she's questioned that.

Until 2018, she was unbeaten for seven years at major championships . Then she came second after being beaten by fellow T34 sprinter Kare Adenegan.

"It was like my career had ended," she said. "Everyone just said, 'Oh, you know, she's past it, it's over, she's no longer the queen of the track'.

"My meaning is to go out and be the best in the world. It's not to win silvers or lose races. It's to be at the top.

"But when the media remove that and say 'She's lost her crown, she's lost her throne, she's all these things', you read it and you think, is that true? Then why am I bothering getting out of bed today? Why am I going training?

"Those are the days where you just want to stay in bed and hide and don't want to be seen on the track."

Cockroft competes in the T34 classification of wheelchair sprinting, which is for athletes with cerebral palsy or brain damage, and she races from the 100m up to the 1500m.

She won two golds at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, and three more in Rio in 2016.

She has faced tough competition from Adenegan, but Cockroft says it was a hard truth that pulled her back up.

"It was actually someone else's coach that came up to me and said, 'Why you crying?'. I said 'I just lost' and he went, 'So? That's what you do as an athlete'.

"I went 'I don't lose'. And he said, 'If you think you don't lose then you're not the athlete that I thought you were. So either go home, or stop crying and go back on the track'.

"And I was like, 'Oh, Okay! Alright!' It's harsh, but sometimes that's what you need".