IPC chief hopes Japan sweeps away last barriers as Paralympics host

by

Kyodo

International Paralympic Committee President Sir Philip Craven has a simple but complicated wish: to fix the world so that he is recognized not as a user of a wheelchair, but as the person he is.

“We’re not the disabled. I’m me, and you’re you,” Craven said in a recent interview.

“Let’s fix planet Earth for the good of everyone. We’ve only got between 1 and 2 billion years left on this planet. Let’s make the most of it.”

Craven was visiting Japan to celebrate the Japanese launch of the “I’m Possible” education program, which has been developed to engage elementary school students in the Paralympic Movement.

At the heart of the program, Craven and the governing body of para-sports are keen to get more children involved in the Olympics, starting with Tokyo, and see the opportunity as “reverse education” where children can teach their parents about para-athletes and bring them to events.

President of the IPC since 2001 and no longer eligible to run for the position, the 66-year-old Craven has announced his resignation and elections for the new president will be held during the general assembly of the IPC in Abu Dhabi in September.

Craven said he hoped the new president will continue what he and his supporters have achieved over the past 16 years, notably the transformation of the Paralympic Movement “from a disability sports organization into an international sports organization.”

Last August, the IPC suspended the Russian para-athletes from competing at the Rio Games after finding evidence of state-sponsored doping.

When asked whether the Russian anti-doping control system has improved, Craven said he had only received positive feedback but it is still too early to see concrete and permanent changes.

When the Russian athletes, given a blanket ban over the scandal, return to the Para Games, that’s when the situation will be resolved, Craven said.

“I and the governing board of the IPC were incredibly saddened by what happened. But we had to take action. We have to be true to our principles, and sport and para-sport is about fair play,” he said.

Craven said Japan, where people still believe in the spirit of fair play and sportsmanship stemming from Bushido, has a very good chance of surpassing the 2012 London Games, which he described as “the greatest Paralympic Games ever.”

Craven was quick to point out that Rio was better in terms of athletic performance, but Japan has much more to look forward to with the addition of two new sports — para-badminton and para-taekwondo — and the coming together of innovation.

Craven, a five-time Paralympian in wheelchair basketball and swimming, visited Japan for the first time in 1995, and was awe-struck by the unique culture of Japan and the kindness of its people.

He recalled his first trip, when a British airline left his two wheelchairs — one for daily use and the other for competition use — in London when he arrived in Tokyo.

Within minutes, Craven was provided with five wheelchairs during his journey on public transport from Narita airport to Yamagata before his wheelchairs arrived 12 hours later on another flight.

The treatment he got then serves as a good example for what para-athletes can expect in 2020, when the games return to the Japanese capital for the first time since 1964, he said.

“We all have different aspirations. I may want to drive a sports car, while someone else many want to get in a taxi. No problem. Let’s accommodate everybody. This isn’t about the disabled and the abled. This is about mobility for all,” he said.

“And just to realize what can be done in a modern world, when you’ve got a country such as Japan where tradition is married together with innovation, we probably have the nation which can best achieve our goal looking forward to 2020 and beyond.”

Craven is thrilled with the efforts put into the Universal Design 2020 Action Plan, which aims to improve access and facilities mainly for elderly and disabled visitors, and promote barrier-free mental attitudes through a barrier-free environment.

He explained that improved access meant convenience for all. He wanted to see the “D word” (for disability) dropped altogether.

“It’s about access to everybody. Don’t differentiate, don’t marginalize, let’s bring (everyone) together. When access is right, you don’t notice it,” he said.

He still sees the need for change, such as in aircraft that prohibit passengers in wheelchairs occupying the emergency exit row seats, meaning the seats where a passenger is required to assist in an emergency evacuation could be empty on a flight Craven is on.

“If I pay business class, I cannot sit in the front row. Why? Because I can’t get to the door to open it. Nor can I sit in the aisle seat. What happens in an accident? If the two passengers by me are dead, I’m dead. Is my life worth less than somebody with two good legs? Come on, get real,” Craven said.

“This is not a Japanese thing. This is worldwide. Let’s get these regulations up to date. Japan can lead the way to the future. You will be world leaders. You will not be world followers.”