Like many people in this country, and around the world, I have always had some interest in sport. Whilst in the past I was a keen player of rugby and cricket, today I only participate as an enthusiastic spectator. However, there is one sporting activity in which I am still involved and from which I derive much pleasure. Whether touring with tent and luggage through the varied countryside of Europe, wheeling through the lanes with club mates, or occasionally testing myself against the clock, cycling continues to be a passion and a means of gaining both exercise and relaxation from my day to day work.
One of the great features of sport in recent years is that many of the people who manage events have been far more conscious of the need to improve access and make it more inclusive. The media coverage given to recent Paralympic Games, is just one example of this. Witness the huge crowds that attended the games in London and the fact that many disabled sportsmen and women have become “household names” in the UK at least. I have been pleased when visiting schools in the last few years to see pictures of Tanni Grey-Thompson, David Weir, Jonny Peacock, Ellie Simmonds and David Stone amongst others, displayed alongside those of well-known able bodied athletes.
In many sports those sports people who have disabilities compete in separate events from others who are able bodied. However, we are increasingly seeing some paralympians and others, making an impact on the general sports scene. It is good to see that the general public now recognise that disabled athletes train as hard as any, and that they are pushing the barriers of human capability just as much as those sporting stars who have been a feature of our television screens for the past fifty years.
Two nights ago, along with Sara I was able to indulge my enthusiasm for cycling by attending an event in Peterborough, a city thirty miles from where we live. During the evening, we enjoyed watching two cycle races in which teams of professional riders hurtled at great speed around a city centre course, cheered on by a large and enthusiastic crowd. The two races, one for men and the other for women, provided an evening of excitement and entertainment during which a friendly and enthusiastic audience made plenty of noise to encourage the athletes and support their favourites.
The men’s race was won by two times Olympic gold medal winner and five times World Champion Ed Clancy, who is always popular with spectators. In a tight race he sprinted to his victory in the home straight, winning by barely a bike’s length much to the delight of an excited crowd.
The women’s race was equally spectacular, but less nail biting at the finish as the winner crossed the line some distance ahead of her rivals. Sarah Storey was again a popular winner and received a mighty cheer from all onlookers. Sarah Storey also has an impressive record (in cycling circles these tend to be referred to as palmares) and is the holder of six Olympic gold cycling medals. However, one of the differences here between Sarah and Ed, is that she won hers in the Paralympic games. Before taking up cycling, she was an outstanding swimmer and gained similar medal successes in the Olympic Games in Barcelona and Atlanta. As she crossed the line on Tuesday, Sarah Storey left a number of other Olympians and champions in her wake. The popularity of her win on Tuesday evening had little to do with the fact that she is a Paralympian participating, and winning in “mainstream sport;” indeed, those of us who follow cycling are fairly confident that she will ride in the main Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Cycle sport enthusiasts, and those who are good enough to compete against her have long recognised that Sarah Storey is simply a remarkable athlete and competitor.
Not all disabled athletes will be able to compete as equals against their able bodied peers, and there remains a need to support events such as the Paralymic Games that address their needs. But elite competitors such as Sarah Storey have done much to raise the awareness of the general public of what can be achieved by any athlete who is willing to make personal sacrifices, and to work has hard as she has (and of course, has natural talent). Sport has gradually become more inclusive and can possibly lead the way in encouraging other facets of society to follow.
I must be less lazy and get back out on my bike far more often!