The day my life changed

13th May 2011 at 01:00
I took on the paralympic establishment and won. Now we want glory in 2012

I knew when I finished teacher training that I did not want to try to convince healthy teenagers to love sport as much as I did. But if you could get youngsters with special needs interested in sport, it could have some life-changing and ground-breaking results.

This was 1971 and there were no PE teachers in special schools. St Francis Special School in Lincoln was a new, purpose-built school with a forward- thinking head who wanted to recruit a PE teacher. The children there had spina bifida, cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy, among other conditions.

It was my time with St Francis that got me involved with the British Sports Association for the Disabled (BSAD) and, after years of voluntary involvement, I became its chief executive in 1983 and led the British team to the Paralympic Games five times between 1984 and 2000.

It was the Sydney Games in 2000 that caused problems for athletes with intellectual difficulties. Spain won the basketball, only to have it plastered all over the media that they had cheated and had no athletes with no intellectual disability on their team. It was a terrible day for intellectually disabled athletes everywhere.

The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) said that they couldn't afford to risk this happening again. Unless the international sports federation for para-athletes with an intellectual disability (INAS-FID) could prove that they had a system in place to make sure such deliberate cheating couldn't happen in the future, they would have to ban athletes with intellectual disabilities from taking part. INAS-FID was suspended from membership of the IPC, meaning athletes with an intellectual disability were unable to compete in the 2004 Games in Athens. Athletes who had done nothing wrong were were suffering and INAS-FID was told to get its house in order.

In 2006, I was elected president of INAS-FID. Probably more than anything else, I took it on because the wrong people were being punished. Athletes with intellectual disabilities had already been excluded from Athens and were also about to be excluded from Beijing.

The first thing I did was go to the IPC and set up a joint working party to identify what would satisfy everyone. Relations between the two had turned adversarial but I knew most of the personalities on both sides and was able to bring them together.

We recruited academic researchers and sport science experts and eventually developed a layered system, first to identify genuine disability and then to relate that to the context of sport. In 2009, at its general assembly in Kuala Lumpur, the IPC formally acknowledged that its confidence had been re-established in INAS-FID. As a result, intellectually disabled athletes will be able to take part in swimming, table tennis and athletics during London 2012.

When I heard the outcome of the vote, I was delighted that after so many years of watching from the sidelines, I was able to help move things along.

We are gradually developing thorough tests and procedures for the rest of the categories - 19 in total. We want to make sure there is no possibility that what happened in 2000 can happen again. London 2012 has to be seen to work. These athletes have already missed out on the past 10 years.

Working at St Francis was the start of 40 years of promoting sport for children of any ability. What those children showed me was not just that they had a real love of sport, but that sport can provide them with huge social and physical benefits, if only they are given the opportunity.

Bob Price was talking to Meabh Ritchie. If you have an experience to share, email

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