5 November 2018
Tim Hollingsworth: From medal success to challenging perceptions of disability in society – my Paralympic journey
By Tim Hollingsworth, CEO, British Paralympic Association
Wednesday is the British Paralympic Association’s AGM. Among other things the members will elect two new Board members who will help take the organisation forward for the rest of the Tokyo Games cycle and beyond.
I will not be joining them however. Wednesday is also my final day at the BPA - after just over seven years as its Chief Executive, I am heading off to start my new role as Chief Executive at Sport England later this month.
When people speak of their journey in sport it often sounds cliched. Well forgive me, because that is exactly what it has felt like – the most incredible journey. When I joined in 2011 there was just over one year to go to the London 2012 Paralympic Games. Since then I have had the privilege of witnessing our amazing British Paralympians compete across four Games – two summer and two winter. In total 280 medals have been won by British athletes across those Games. Perhaps even more of a milestone, as I stood at finish line in PyeongChang this March and cheered Menna Fitzpatrick and her sighted guide Jennifer Kehoe to the top of the podium in their final race of the Games, they registered the 100th gold medal precisely in that time. Both Rio 21016 and PyeongChang 2018 were the most successful Games for ParalympicsGB in terms of the medal table and absolutely everyone involved across those Games should be rightly proud of what was achieved.
Hollingsworth and Ellie Simmonds at London 2012
Given the privilege of my role it is hard to pick a favourite moment. There were and are so many – from that recent gold, back to those won by Jonnie Peacock in the Stadium or Ellie Simmonds in the Aquatic Centre at London 2012. But I think overall my standout moment remains the success of the Rio Games. There was so much at stake, and so much challenge and difficulty in the build up to those Games – with both a funding crisis in the OCOG and the ban imposed by the IPC on Russia for doping creating a huge amount of disruption and uncertainty. So, to see not just the athletes but the whole team behind the team deliver so well across that Games makes me still – as the CEO – immensely proud.
However, to think back only to the sport and the performances of our athletes is only to touch on the nature of the role, and the times. The Paralympic movement worldwide is growing fast, bringing not just increased competition but also challenges to overcome. The nature and robustness of the classification process, and the ability to ensure there is meaningful opportunity for athletes with higher support needs to engage in and enjoy sport let alone compete at a Games are just two of many such growing pains that have arisen. It has been a real pleasure to be part of the international family, and to engage with so many inspirational colleagues from across the world, but none of us would suggest for a second that there is not a great deal more hard work to be done.
Perhaps the greatest element domestically is also still properly to be delivered. When you are part of this movement you know that it is not just about the sport. The great power of the Paralympics is its higher purpose – its ability to challenge perceptions and change attitudes in society towards disability. To focus on what is possible, rather than what is not. In the words of the BPA’s strategic vision, to “through sport, inspire a better world for disabled people.”
I am very proud of everything we have done to engage in this agenda – from our own programmes like Parasport, National Paralympic Day and the Get Set education platform we share with the BOA through to supporting the likes of Help for Heroes, Scope and especially the incredible Channel Four as they seek to use their own platforms and creative drive to put issues of perception of disability front and centre.
Abdi Jama with children at National Paralympic Day
We have undoubtedly made progress. London 2012 in particular started a new debate in society and it has and will continue – not least through the great support of the National Lottery and the BPA’s own commercial partners. But there is still a long road ahead for true equality in society and much more that needs to be done. While the summit is visible we are not yet much out of the foothills.
That however is part of the continued great opportunity. At a time when many other sporting movements across the world are struggling for credibility and engagement, the Paralympic movement is on the up. It is growing and I think is now set to be one of the dominant sporting influences on the world over the next two decades.
I certainly believe that can be true at home. As I head excitedly to my new role, and our collective desire at Sport England to help all members of our society live healthier more active lives, I will take with me the knowledge and belief that you can positively impact on people’s lives through the power of sport and physical activity. Where we at Sport England will look at the challenges faced by disabled people and how best to assist them to become more active, my fantastic former colleagues at the BPA will be among those that can help show us the way. To remind me, and everyone I will be working with in the future, that the answer to almost every question can be – in the title of Channel Four’s inspirational 2016 film - “Yes, I can”…
First published as a blog on Inside the Games