IPC President Sir Philip Craven: Paralympians fight for their rights, freedoms

The Paralympic Winter Games are underway in Sochi. The sporting festivities are grabbing unprecedented attention, with massive media coverage and record ticket sales. But what are the challenges that Paralympians are facing on their way to the podium? What does it take to launch such a large-scale sporting event? Today Sophie talks to Sir Philip Craven, president of the International Paralympics Committee, to find the answers

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Sir Philip Craven, president of the International Paralympic Committee, it’s really great to have you on our program today. So, obviously the world’s attention is right now fixed on Ukraine, and we’re seeing a list of countries that are already boycotting the Paralympics. What are your feelings? Do you feel like it’s an inappropriate thing to do in this context, mixing politics and sport? But especially when it has to do with the Paralympics?

Sir Philip Craven: I’ve [heard] your word “boycotting” there, but I am not aware of any country boycotting the Games at the moment. I think my philosophy is “sport and politics should not mix” – and normally they do not mix. And therefore the IPC’s position very much is that we’re here, in conjunction with the Sochi 2014 organizing committee, to organize one of the best Paralympic Winter Games ever.

SS:There has been so much skepticism before the Olympics started in Sochi, whether it all is going to be built, everything was going to be ready or not, and then right now you’re in Sochi – are you satisfied with how well organized the Games are?

PC: I was both here in the Coastal Cluster, and, of course, up in the Roza Khutor and the Laura and also of course in the city of Sochi – which is a heck of a long city, 140 kilometers - and I’m very, very pleased with the incredible work that has been done in the last few years to really transform a piece of wasteland into a Coastal Cluster and the Olympic and Paralympic Park, and then when you go up the valley and see what’s been installed there, and then you get to Krasnaya Polyana and then move up the mountain, it’s just quite amazing.

SS:But you said you were in Sochi as well. Do you feel like the city is well adapted for the needs of paralympians?

PC: Well, I do. Of course, barrier-free environments are not created overnight, and especially when you’re dealing with the city that has been already founded tens, if not hundreds, of years ago, and therefore things take time. But the progress that has been made so far, I think it is quite remarkable and I think also about the fact that the Sochi 2014 organizing committee has used as their basis for accessibility in their barrier-free environments the International Paralympic Committee accessibility guide. We are very happy with that; we know it’s of a very high standard and as you move around the park and in the mountains, you just see what work is being done.

SS:So this year there will be only five competitions during these Games. What are the sports that you would like to see added in the future?

PC: Well I think, first of all, you say “only five,” but we’ve got very major sports. If you look at the sledge hockey, you look at wheelchair curling - both of which are in the coastal cluster - then look at the mountains, alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, biathlon and, now of course, for the first time ever, thanks to support from Russia, we have two events in para-snowboarding, so we are very pleased that there has been an addition here, para-snowboarding, and indeed we are looking forward to 2022; it won’t be in 2018, to the possibility of maybe one or two new sports…

SS: Which sports would they be? Which one are you most looking forward to seeing?

PC: We haven’t decided that yet, but we’ve got discussions that are ongoing with several international federations. And of course the announcement on the sports program of 2022, when you think that the location of 2022 has not been decided yet, will be in a couple of years time. But we are working very closely with international federations for winter sports; they are working very closely with the IPC and are very keen to get their sports into the Paralympic Games.

SS:Sir Craven, the Paralympics in London were a huge success. How are you trying to maintain this momentum in Sochi and beyond?

PC: I think what we, obviously first of all, are doing is to ensure that the facilities for the athletes are the best they can possibly be. If you think of what does an athlete require when competing...well, they require good accommodation, good food, good training facilities, and the very best competition facilities. We have all of those here, and I think that the Olympics proved that the transport system works, the transport system is the life blood of any games, and so we’ve got tremendous facilities here, as we had in London, as I am sure we will have in Rio in 2016, and then looking forward to Pyeongchang, the next Paralympic Winter Games in 2018, and then of course Tokyo in 2020. So, it is to maintain the momentum - you’re absolutely right there; first of all ensure that the athletes are very well catered for and, then they will perform at their best, but then if we look to broadcasting, there’ll be more broadcasting than ever here, from Sochi, from this Winter Games, and this will just increase as we move forward into the future.

SS: Since you’re talking about catering the athletes, what are the biggest problems athletes usually face in their preparation for the Paralympics?

PC: Well, it’s definitely not catering. There are problems, that’s what I’m saying, and therefore to have everything so well-presented and so well-organized here, particularly in the areas which really affect the athletes and the teams, and I said that to you: that’s accommodation, the villages, that’s food in the villages, that’s transport, that’s training venues, that’s competition venues – these are all very well catered for. They are very good, and therefore the athletes are sure to have great facilities from which they will compete like they’ve never done before, they are the very, very best.

SS:Where can you get the proper equipment? I’ve read about one of your competitors, German biathlonist Martin Fleig, who had his skis printed on a 3D printer to suit his needs.

PC: Well, normally they would get their winter sports equipment either from specialist manufacturers - if you look to sledges for sledge hockey; of course for wheelchair curling, you’re dealing with pretty standard wheelchairs, and of course pretty standard curling equipment. If you then look to sit-skis, or actual skis, if an athlete is skiing down the mountain on one ski, instead of two, maybe it does have some adaptations…but these are all catered for by the bigger winter sports manufacturers, and if it’s a specialty piece of equipment, then probably by a specialist smaller supplier, but this is quite well developed now and of course it’s the athletes that push the barriers when it comes to, and push the development of new technologies, and that’s something that we keep a very close eye on, also.

SS: Is there anything different in a psychology of the Olympic athletes, compared to a Paralympic athlete?

PC: Nothing at all! We’re all about sport, we’re all about training as hard as we can. No difference at all...What is a common denominator here? It’s not the fact that an Olympic athlete has got two good arms and two good legs and two good eyes and two good whatever else, and a Paralympian may not have. The common denominator is sport, competition, training hard, elite effort in an elite performance. And so it’s really identical and you know you can see that from the way that the Athletes Council of the IPC and the Athletes Commission of the IOC get on so well together; and so athletes just get on. Paralympians, Olympians, what’s the difference? Nothing for me.

SS:So you would say that winning is the most important thing as opposed to a process of rehabilitation through sports and competition?

PC: Well it depends on what level you’re at. I mean, sports and physical activity are very important in the rehabilitation, but if you’ve had, for example, a major accident, you don’t attend Paralympic Games two months later. It takes time to prepare your body, to prepare your mind – again, no difference between a Paralympian or an Olympian – but here, at the Paralympic Winter Games, you talk about elite athletes. You’re not talking about people who’ve just come out of the rehabilitation process. It is a continuum. Sport is a great way, great vehicle for someone to find their life again after maybe what could be termed a “tragedy.” Use sport as a vehicle, and then if you really enjoy it, and are really good at it, you could compete in the Paralympic Winter Games, but that will be several years down the road.

SS:Obviously you have come across amazing life stories, inspiring stories, your personal story as well being one of those. But if you could single one out, what is the most inspiring story from an athlete that you have heard or met?

PC: That is a very difficult question because, as I’ve said previously, I always just look at athletes as athletes, athletes as people, and it is true to say that many, many Paralympians have overcome what may be viewed as barriers, whether that’s physical or psychological, or I don’t know, to do with integration in society. One thing about Paralympians is that they’re fighters; they’re fighters who fight very, very hard for what they believe in, for what their rights are, and for what their freedom should be. So I cannot come up with one individual story. I normally leave that to the media. They come up with these stories, but I’ve had a very, very interesting life; a life which, if I hadn’t broken my back rock climbing when I was 16, then I don’t think my life would have been anything like as interesting as it has been. So, I’m not saying that my story inspires me, but I just know I’ve have had such a varied life. I’ve had an amazing life.

SS:But for the general public, when we look at Paralympians, obviously we’re also very interested in their personal stories, what’s behind the athlete…Something that doesn’t necessarily interest us if we look at Olympians. Does that fact bother you as a Paralympic champion and Paralympic trooper? Does that bother you that people are also interested in personal stories?

PC: Absolutely not. Not at all. I think it’s great and if you wanted to interview me about my personal life, here I am to talk to you about it. But I always say that it is far better if you interview individual athletes and see what experiences they’ve had. I’m not the person to talk about others, but I’m pretty much an expert on myself. But it doesn’t bother me whatsoever, because being a sportsman and being an athlete or, in my case, a former competitor as you might say…what you learn in life that is so vast and so wide, it’s not just to do with competing, even in the Paralympic Games, winter or summer. It’s about learning about life, you know, getting a job, marrying a fantastic French woman, like I’ve done. I’ve had two kids, now I’ve got two grandsons, both of which are playing rugby and the big fight there is between my wife, who’s French and wants them to play for France, if they are good enough of course, and their father, and their mother – my daughter, who probably wants them to play for England. There, we’ve got a tussle going on in the family, but that’s life, you see. I mean, one thing I will say to your viewers is that Paralympians don’t worry about what doesn’t work - they just maximize what does. So it is a very positive attitude to life, which is something that may be brand new for your viewers. Now, the more athletes you interview during these - what will be amazing - Paralympic Games, the more your viewers will get to change maybe their attitudes and their perceptions and realize, “Hey, we’re all just people of one world here.”

SS:Well, first of all, thanks for sharing that amazing story with us. But for those who want to get involved in Paralympics, how do those with disabilities actually get into sports? Do they have to look for a sponsor like regular athletes do? Is it harder for them?

PC: I think that when anyone starts off with sport, their first thought is not “looking for sponsors,” because what they’ve got to do, whether they are a young child or whoever, or someone who’s just had an injury of some description, they have to start to enjoy sport. They have to be given opportunities, they have to seek opportunities and find them, where they can try out different sports and then start to practice the one that they enjoy most. And that doesn’t mean if you’re…I don’t know, if you’re one meter ninety or two meters, you’ll automatically become a basketball player; you might not like basketball. I love basketball, by the way, but that’s different – and I wasn’t two meters, I was about one meter eighty…You have to find a sport that you really love. Then, you have to have the facilities in which you can go and practice that sport, really, at a very low level to begin with. And then you have to have the pathways with which you can then follow your sport and get better and better at it, and just look into Russia – the Russian Paralympic Committee has done great work with other organizations who are members of the Russian Paralympic Committee, and then you’ll probably see that from the performances here in Sochi, as the Games unfold over the next two weeks.

SS:How do you go about classifying who is eligible to be a Paralympian or not? I’ll tell you why I am asking – I remember back in 2000, members of the Spanish Paralympics basketball team, they turned out to have faked their disabilities…was that an isolated event? Doesn’t it happen often?

PC: Yeah, well that was a specific event, where we were dealing with athletes who had an intellectual disability. The international organization that was responsible for those sports at that time did not have a sufficiently robust eligibility system, and therefore those athletes were not permitted to compete again in the Paralympic games until London 2012, in three sports – table tennis, swimming, and athletics. So that was a specific situation. Going back to the first part of your question, athletes, in order to compete in the Paralympic Games, have to be eligible to do so – so if that’s an athlete with visual impairment, they have to be able to prove that they have visual impairment through testing; and similarly, if that’s a physical impairment, then they have to prove that they have a permanent physical impairment and that then could make it that they are eligible to compete in a specific Paralympic sport and that then could lead to them competing in the Paralympic Games.

SS:Well cheating and doping scandals…

PC: But it has to be impairment. Otherwise you have to compete in the Olympic Games.

SS: I know also that cheating and doping scandals, that’s a huge problem for the Olympic Committee, and I would imagine also for the Paralympics. How big of an issue is it?

PC: I don’t see it as a major issue, doping by athletes, even though it’s absolutely true that we have had a few positive cases over a great number of years. We are, of course, against the use of those products in sport, and we are of course members of and are compliant with the World Anti-Doping Agency list of banned substances, and of course are also very much in favor of education programs, so that athletes know it does not pay to cheat by doping. We do not have a major issue, but we are very, very much involved in insuring that that continues to be the case.

SS:Sir, are there any athletes taking part in the Paralympics who have also taken part in the Olympics beforehand?

PC: That is something with the Winter Games that I’m not aware of, and I don’t have an answer for that. I could always come back on a later program with the answer to that.

SS:But has it ever happened in any Games, in Summer Olympics for example?

PC: Well, of course it has. I think you’re aware of that, that there have been several athletes that are Paralympians who have then gone on to competing in the Olympic Games. But that is restricted to a very, very few number of athletes who may have…whether it could be archery, it could be shooting, it could be double amputees in athletics, but it’s a very, very few number of athletes that can be in that cross-over between Paralympics and Olympics.

SS:Now the Paralympics used to provide free TV coverage, but now the event is raising trough broadcast, like any other. So tickets are apparently sold out in Sochi. Why is the attitude changing, in your opinion?

PC: It was never our intention to, as you put it actually, I wouldn’t have put it that way, that broadcasting was free. Broadcasting costs money, and therefore there has to be rights fees, so that at least we have the cash to put on the show for television. And so we have been working very, very hard over a great number of years now to raise this profile and in fact to achieve rights fees from many nations, so at least the costs of production can be achieved and we are getting there now. It has been a change, it’s really been a development, but it has always been something that we wished to do.

SS: Now, the Paralympics have come a long way since the 50s and you yourself, being the president of the IPC, have been extremely successful at doing your job. What are you aiming to tackle in the final years of your presidency?

PC: That’s a good question. I think that we’ve already covered one of those things, which is really to maintain the momentum of the Paralympic Games, whether that’s the summer or the winter. That is a prime objective. The second one is to continue to improve the standards of many other international Paralympic sport events, and that is something that we are achieving. We had a very good IPC World Athletic Championships in Lyon, in France, last year, 2013, and also World Swimming Championships in Montreal, in Canada. So this is another area where we are really increasing our efforts and achieving success, and I want that to continue. And the third area is the creation and the support for far more athletes competing in Paralympic sports throughout the world – most of that development work is done through our foundation, which is the Agitos Foundation, named after our Paralympics symbol, and that is something that has really started to kick in over the last year, 20 months, and one of my really pet subjects moving forward, that really, the creation of new athletes to open up the world of Paralympics sports to many more people in many more countries is one of my most sincere ambitions.

SS:Sir Craven, thank you so much for this interesting interview, we wish you all the best in all your future endeavors. This was Sir Phillip Craven, president of the International Paralympic Committee. We were talking about the Winter Olympics that are taking place in Sochi right now, also talking about the challenges that lay ahead of the Paralympians and how to keep up the momentum of the Paralympic movement. That’s it for this edition of SophieCo, stay with us for the next time.