IAN COLE reports from the Ladbrokes Lunch at the Charing Cross Hotel. Photographs by TOM DULAT/Getty Images
Britain’s most successful Paralympian, Tanni Grey-Thompson, was never short of an opinion or two as a competitor and now, in retirement and with the title Baroness, she continues to command attention.
Whether in the confines of the House of Lords or in the more relaxed surroundings of a Sports Journalists’ Association Ladbrokes Lunch, the “Welsh whirlwind in a wheelchair”, as she was once affectionately dubbed, is worth listening to – as we found out when she was our latest celebrity guest together with almost 30 assorted members of the media in a private room at the Charing Cross Hotel in central London.
Tanni earned worldwide respect in a career which brought her 11 Paralympic gold medals in distances ranging from 100 to 800 metres and stretched from Seoul to Athens via Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney.
Once the gathering including our new friends from Ladbrokes who are partnering us on a series of lunches through 2012, had made their way through a roast lamb course, Lady Grey-Thompson took on two hot potatoes that are regularly on the sports news agenda: Oscar Pistorius and Dwain Chambers.
Pistorius, South Africa’s “Blade Runner” double amputee whose times over 400 metres took him to this year’s able-bodied athetlics world championship semi-final, has already posted a qualifying time for that event in next summer’s London Olympics.
This has raised the question of whether he might be the first to compete in both the Olympics and Paralympics in the same event at the same year.
“I’ve been really supportive of Oscar and I was delighted to see him running in the world championships. But I’m quite clear that he shouldn’t be allowed to compete in the same event at the Paralympics a couple of weeks later,” the Baroness said.
“He’s a really nice guy, he trains hard and if I was Oscar I’d be doing exactly what he is doing. There’s more money, more television and more commercial support. Would you rather run in front of three men and a dog somewhere or run in Daegu?
“I’ve never wanted the Paralympics to be a B final.”
Now for Chambers. The British Olympic Association’s by-law that convicted drug cheats should never be selected for Britain’s team for the Games is under pressure from the World Anti-Doping Agency – and others – who believe that sprinter Chambers has served his time and should be allowed to compete at the London Games.
Not according to Lady Grey-Thompson, who chaired UK Athletics’ recent study of anti-doping policies. “I wholeheartedly support the BOA on this. The Olympics is a big deal. We’ve worked so hard and spent so much money over the years in educating athletes to stay away from drugs I think it would be a backward step to weaken our stance now.
“You can say it’s not fair, but sport’s not fair. It’s not fair that our athletes compete against other countries whose view on drugs is not as firm as ours. It’s not fair when you are clean and you have to compete against athletes who may not be.
“People who decide to cheat shouldn’t have the right to compete in the Olympic Games. Ever.
“Dwain is a really lovely young man, but what really troubles me is that when he was given the opportunity to take the direction he did, why did nobody stop him?”
Tanni, who has worked as a television presenter on the Paralympics and the London Marathon (a race she won six times), was asked whether she was confident in Channel 4’s ability to justify its status as the principal network for the London Paralympics following the widespread criticism of its presentation of events from Daegu this year.
Channel 4 dumped its inexperienced and inexpert front man four days into the championships and Grey-Thompson said: “The strange thing is, most TV presenters would bite off your right arm to be able to present something like the world athletics championships.
“I know Channel 4 are making efforts to find disabled sports people who could become presenters, but there just aren’t that many. There’s still time for them to work on it though.”
As you might expect of a board member at LOCOG, the London Olympic and Paralympic organisers, Grey-Thompson is confident of the success of the 2012 Games. “Every four years the event just gets better and better. I used to think it was my job to speak up for the Paralympics but it just isn’t necessary any more. These days the public get it and there has been a huge interest in tickets.
“Even I didn’t get all the tickets I applied for. So I’ll be going into the second ballot.”
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