by Timothy Moots
Rising Phoenix, the brand-new Netflix documentary directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, combines a history of the Paralympic Games with the personal stories of several of its more famous athletes. The history focuses on the pioneering efforts of Dr. Ludwig Guttman, a neurologist who fled Nazi Germany because he was Jewish and spent the entirety of his life during and after the Second World War caring for British soldiers and advocating for the use of sports for patient rehabilitation. His tireless efforts brought the games to life in 1948, gave them meaning, and made them an official international event at the 1960 Rome Paralympic Games. The documentary is a masterclass of storytelling.
Interspersed with the historical telling of the Paralympics, the documentary tells the stories of Paralympians of the recent past. French long jumper Jean-Baptiste Alazie, who, as an infant, lost his right leg and his mother to a machete attack in Burundi. Italian fencer Beatrice ‘Bebe’ Vio, who despite losing both her hands and legs to meningitis competed for the Gold Medal in the Paralympic Games in Rio 2016 (No spoilers: watch the documentary). These stories, and those of the other participants, will leave you in tears. The Duke of Sussex, Prince Harry, and the former head of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), Sir Philip Craven, offer some background on the behind-the-scenes work done on behalf of the Paralympics.
The desire to celebrate these individuals and the entire concept of the Paralympics, however, misses the same dark side that all sports face. While the build-up, organising, and sporting elements of the documentary revolve around the 2016 Rio Games, one controversy of the Games was entirely missing: the Russian doping scandal. In July 2016, weeks before the Olympic and Paralympic Games were due to commence, Professor Richard McLaren, a sports lawyer and member of an independent commission of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) presented his report on allegations of state-sponsored doping in Russia. The McLaren Report concluded ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ that Russian institutions including the Ministry of Sport and the Federal Security Service (the FSB) had ‘operated for the protection of doped Russian athletes’ within a ‘state-directed failsafe system.’ Largely as a result of the decisions taken from the top, the McLaren Report had different consequences for athletes competing in the Olympic and Paralympic Games. While the International Olympic Committee (IOC) cleared two-thirds of the Russian athletes to compete by the start of August, on 7 August 2016, Sir Philip Craven took to the stand at a now-famous press conference to announce that the International Paralympic Committee was to instigate a blanket ban on Russian athletes competing in the Paralympic Games.
This article focuses on an interview I carried out with Sir Philip, exploring the life and mindset of an athlete turned international sports leader. Under Sir Philip’s administration, the Paralympic Games were transformed into one of the largest sporting competitions in the world (in terms of ticket sales, the Paralympic Games is only behind the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games). The Paralympics has not been without international challenges, global controversy, and conflict. This interview explored Sir Philip’s life, his motivation, his time competing, to President of the International Paralympic Committee.
‘A First-Class honours in wheelchair basketball’
Sir Philip was born in Bolton in the North of England. He sticks to his northern roots, residing now in Cheshire, and as a Knight of the Realm, he maintains his straight-talking strong northern accent. ‘I have never lost my accent, when anybody tries to talk posh to me then I put it on even more. I’ve met a lot of people who would talk awfully like that, but as a result, my accent became broader.’
During his teenage years, he had been a keen swimmer, tennis, and cricket player (noticeable in our interview is Philip’s fierce English‑Aussie rivalry). At the age of 16, he had a rock-climbing accident. The year England won the FIFA World Cup in 1966, he discovered he had severed his spine and could probably no longer use his legs. For most of us, this would have been life-changing news. But for Philip, there was no dwelling on the past. Rather, ‘what’s next?’ was his response.
As he told it: ‘Within two or three days of my accident when I was lying in a hospital bed I saw wheelchair basketball being played outside. Something clicked inside. Nobody told me that I would be in a wheelchair, but that’s how it worked out. There was still sport and I always loved sport. With wheelchair basketball, I found a sport I loved playing. It was no effort to me, I would train with the stand-up basketball team at the University of Manchester, and I would absolutely kill my body in training. I used to do 70 sprints at eighty per cent up and down the court before I started doing free shots. I could hardly lift my arms after that, but that is the way to do it, that is what happened in a tournament.’
Philip’s motivation came from a love of sports, the desire to win when he was competing. For him, ‘if you lost, you learnt. There is always the next game. Even if you won a big tournament, there is always what’s next. And that is what my life has always been like. My wife can’t understand it.’ He had tried other sports, as a natural breaststroker he tried swimming, and as a cricketer, he could catch and throw anything, but he admits he wasn’t as good a batsman. But it was wheelchair basketball he fell in love with ‘like a duck to water.’ Before his first Paralympic Games in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1972, he completed his Geography degree at the University of Manchester, which he admits ‘really was a First-Class honours in wheelchair basketball.’
However, Great Britain never played France in the 1972 Games at Heidelberg. And, as the French had challenged the GB team with sporting chants of ‘we’re better than you,’ for any Englishman this had to result in a match. So, Philip and the team went out to St. Malo in September 1972 but letting the nation down, lost by two points. At that match he signed a contract to play for the Club Olympique de Kerpape in South Brittany, where he played for two seasons, winning the French league and cup two years on the run. On day two he met ‘a wonderful young French woman, Jocelyne. We had a pretty turbulent six months, but then we finally got our act together and she’s been my wife ever since for the last forty-six years.’ However, with no job prospects and wanting to avoid the pathway of a geography teacher, he applied for jobs back in Britain. In 1974, he took a management position at the Coal Board. ‘I chose the Coal Board because I thought they would give me the most time off to play international wheelchair basketball.’
For Philip, time at the Coal Board was a learning opportunity. He was interested in economic history, having studied it at school, learning about the miners and their struggle. He recalled ‘I was a management trainee, but I was certainly not on the side of the management, but the men.’
‘I believe in fighting for freedom. Freedom to do what you want. I suppose people look down on you because you’re in a wheelchair. They still do that by the way, not to me, but others. Perhaps they feel sorry for you and all that, but what they don’t realise is there is a fighting spirit there ready to fight their way out. And it doesn’t matter who you are, watch out if you get in the way.’
Competing as an athlete: ‘You can only reform an organisation from the inside’
From the perspective of an athlete, he saw first-hand the way countries organised the Paralympics. In Mexico in 1968, he recalled how the authorities just were not ready for the Games. In 1972 in Heidelberg, it was a great discovery for what the Paralympics were like. ‘The greatest thing I saw there was when the German TV came down one night to the gym and filmed an America player, Ed Owen. He was a great, great player. He was a polio so he could stand up… and when standing he was 6 ft. 8 standing. But sat down? He was head and shoulders above everyone else. He was shooting for around twenty minutes and it seemed like he never missed a shot. And I thought if he could do it, then so I can.’
The inspiration paid off. Philip enjoyed a successful career as an athlete. He represented GB in wheelchair basketball at five Paralympic Games from 1972 to 1988. As well as competing in the Paralympics, he won several medals including the 1970 Commonwealth Paraplegic Games (Gold), the 1973 and 1975 World Championships (Gold; Bronze), the 1971, 1974, and 1993 European Championships (Gold; Gold; Silver) and the 1994 European Champions Cup (Gold).
But the Games were not without sporting tension. ‘There were plenty of bust-ups’—fights between players, in and out of teams. Nor were they without their controversies. In 1976, Philip and his teammate Gerry Kinsella were handed life bans in a letter from Sir Ludwig Gutman for playing wheelchair basketball. As explained to them in the letter, they had to learn to get on with the other players in the team. But what was causing the friction? Ultimately, Philip and Gerry were trying to reform the sport. ‘We were trying to reform the coaching which was absolutely pathetic. It was also getting the athlete’s voice into whichever sports organisation they were involved in.’ Although they played in the Toronto Games in 1976, they were isolated from the team, perhaps out of the coaches’ fear that they were fomenting revolution. This was a huge ban, as Philip and his teammate, Gerry, were the two of the most talented players on the team, taking GB to European Championships in 1971 and 1974 and the World Championships in 1973. The result of the disagreement and their exclusion led to the gutting of GB wheelchair basketball, which finished seventh at the 1977 European Championships. It was no surprise they were invited back to the team. But what led Philip back to the team? ‘I spoke with my wife, and the two of us agreed that the only way you can reform anything is from the inside. You can keep on firing shots from the outside, but they will never listen. But if you are on the inside, you can sort things out.’ Philip returned to international wheelchair basketball but his teammate Gerry, refusing to return unless he received an apology from Sir Lutwig Gutmann, never played again for GB.
The sport needed reform. And at this critical junction, if Philip hadn’t decided to return to try to reform from the inside, he believes ‘the athletes would have remained as patients in the minds of the medical doctors who basically ran the international and national sports movements.’
His memorable games produce all types of controversy from sport to international affairs.
‘1976 was a revolutionary time as we spoke about. But even when we got out to Toronto the coaching was so incompetent. Training sessions weren’t organised, you had to arrange it yourself. 1980 was a disaster from all points of view. The Paralympics were due to be in Russia, but the Russians sent a famous notification that the games can’t take place because they don’t have any disabled people, so how could they arrange them? I referred to that in the closing ceremony at the 2014 Winter Games in front of Putin. Instead, the Dutch stepped in and the Games took place in Arnhem. But the biggest problem in 1980 was that Dutch organisers got hold of this special soft surface that was being experimented with on basketball at the time. If you were 7 ft. and going for a dunk you would have a cushioned landing. But you couldn’t bloody well push your chairs on the surface! It absolutely killed you. In 1984 the games were at Stoke Mandeville. We beat the eventual gold medallists, France, but we lost to Japan. The biggest thrill to me was beating France.’ But who does his wife cheer on? ‘Well that’s an interesting story, but certainly for out of this interview.’
For every sports player competing on the international stage, it produces a number of rivalries, especially coupled with national pride. For Philip, “The team I always wanted to beat but only achieved it once was the USA. In the International Stoke Mandeville Games in ‘86. We beat the States in the semi-final and then lost the final to the Aussies. From the point of view of playing it was the States, but from the point of view of English and British pride, it would be Australia. I can’t stand losing to the Aussies”.
‘Teams start with two’: elected to the IPC
Philip was no stranger to sports administration. By the time he was standing for President at the IPC in 2001, he was the Performance Director for the GB’s Men’s wheelchair basketball team. But what called him to stand for president?
‘In May 2001 the International Paralympic Committee, now 12 years old, staged its first strategic planning conference in Kuala Lumpur. It was a very good conference, but the mission and the vision that was produced after the conference showed it had been written long before the conference had started. It didn’t include anything that had gone on; despite being the length of a chapter of a bloody book! So of course, I expressed my opinion to the Committee at the end of the conference. [I] had decided things needed to change.’
Returning from Kuala Lumpur, Philip immediately planned with his wife what they were going to do about it. Fortunately, their daughter had just finished university and his son was nearly finished. And this was vital for his decision to put his name down for the nominee as at the time there was no salary for President of the IPC. But as he and his wife said ‘we have to go for it to change things around.’ This was a position that required soul to be poured into it, and one that Philip felt he had to do.
But Philip was not the only potential candidate from Britain. He faced a challenge from another Brit, who not only worked for the Cabinet Office at 10 Downing St, he also had the backing of the Foreign Office. Quite the domestic support for an international position. Like all good British negotiations, Philip set up a discussion with the potential challenger in a pub. ‘He lived near Lincoln and I lived in Crewe, and we met in a pub in Lichfield and talked this through.’ After a couple of pints and deliberating on the future of the Paralympics, the challenger stood aside for Philip to go forward as the nominee by the British Paralympic Association.
Philip’s vision was vital for election to the IPC. He had written communications in several languages, ultimately about bringing far more national Paralympic committees into the Paralympics. Moreover, Philip stated, ‘as well as getting a fantastic wife when playing in France, I also learnt to speak French fluently, which was very important during my election to the IPC. I remember most, if not all, French-speaking African nations voted for me, which really tipped the balance.’ He added further that, ‘the one thing this election taught me was you can have all your information written down, translated into many languages, but don’t think people understand it the first time around. We must have sent it six, seven times to each national Paralympic committee, and it definitely had an effect.’ Philip defeated the other challengers, including one placed to stand to take the votes away from Philip.
Just to show how well received Philip’s election to the IPC was by certain members of the IPC board, he recounted a story starting 24 hours before the result: ‘Each of the four candidates for the position of president was given a single A4 sheet of paper itemising what would happen when the successful candidate had been elected. This was that the new president would be invited onto the stage by the outgoing president, would say a few positive words of endearment for the outgoing president’s previous twelve years of work, would be invited to sign the certificate awarding the outgoing president the Paralympic Order, and to remain on the stage until the outgoing president concluded the general assembly.’ Philip was never invited onto the stage.
Immediately into his first term as President, challenges had to be met. The Board had to build an international brand, and they had to start from the bottom. As in so many aspects of life, money was the biggest issue. ‘We needed cash. We needed to professionalise the organisation without losing the grassroots feel. I met the President of the International Olympics Committee (IOC) Jacques Rogge, who invited me to the Winter Olympics at Salt Lake City, Utah. I met Mitt Romney, who was the President of the Organising Committee, and we had a successful Games. But we never made any money from Salt Lake City. One key change to the IPC management line up happened after Salt Lake City. This was when, with IOC support, Xavier Gonzalez came to work for the IPC in June 2002 as Director of Paralympic Games straight from a similar position at the Salt Lake City Organising Committee. We had so much success going forward as teams start with two, and the president and the CEO formed a crucial team at the top. The way we were going to achieve this was from the Games, and hope sponsorship came after. Unfortunately, at Athens in 2004 where an income of one million dollars should have come into IPC coffers, this had to be spent on enhanced television coverage. Fortunately, Jacques Rogge of the IOC, came to our aid and offered the IPC a loan of one million dollars at zero interest, which permitted us to expand our organisation.’
From 2000-2003 the IOC signed with the IPC a three-part agreement, which ensured that the Paralympic Games would be organised by the same organising committee as that which staged the Olympic Games. The first Paralympic Games to benefit from this new agreement ‘one event, two games’ was Beijing in 2008. ‘This brought in the money we needed for the International Paralympic Committee to cover for the 4-year period. It was Beijing that allowed us to build our international brand.’
This breakthrough at Beijing had actually happened three years earlier, in November 2005 after Philip had been re-elected as President for the first time. Philip met with the Premier of China, Wen Jiabao, in the Great Hall of the People for a meeting scheduled to last only 15 minutes. However, ‘it lasted three times that length with me and him speaking all the time. We talked about what parasport could do for society’ in China. Philip’s diplomacy paid off. After that meeting in February 2006, Hu Jintao, the President of China, declared that the Paralympics would be of equal splendour to the Olympics. Philip recalled: ‘we took off like a space rocket after that.’
For Philip, it was all about developing relationships and getting on with people. ‘During the Beijing games, I couldn’t speak a word to the President’s wife [Liu Yongqing], but we got on like a house on fire. We didn’t understand why, but it was just like that.’
The Road to London 2012
In 2005, London went to the finals in their bid to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games, in competition against Paris, New York, Madrid, and Moscow. What took London to success in their bid against the other sporting city giants?
‘The election of the host city for 2012 took place in Singapore. And first of all, Tony Blair and his wife did an amazing job. They were out there for the majority of the time. They saw so many IOC members. What I think sealed it for London, and I said this to my wife who was rooting for Paris, was Seb Coe’s speech, and additional to that was a film produced by a small London company on how sport can inspire young people, and this compared favourably with the touristy videos produced by New York and Paris. Even after the dress rehearsal, I knew we had it.’ But this was not necessarily a done deal. True to the stereotype, the British bid stood firm underdogs against the titans. As the BBC reported in 2005, the two London “unknown film makers”, Daryl Goodrich and Caroline Rowland, will battle against Steven Spielberg and Luc Besson in a bid to win the London Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Nor was the bid given the easiest ride. London was given the ‘death slot,’ the presentation of their bid right after lunch. Philip recalls how New York and Moscow went before Lunch, with Paris and Madrid following London later in the afternoon. But true to Philip’s prediction, following the London bid ‘everyone was buzzing.’ He could safely declare to his wife ‘that we won it.’
One of Philip’s lasting memories from this time was the efforts of Lord Sebastian Coe. ‘He did a handwritten note to each IOC member written on House of Lords notepaper. He made the effort and took the trouble to do things in a very personable way. You only need to swing a few voters to get the outcome that we got.’
Fast forward to 2012. It is the opening night of the Paralympics and the atmosphere in London was electric. Channel 4 released an incredibly successful marketing campaign including TV adverts ‘Meet the Superhumans’. The Channel 4 marketing team had a great strategy that delivered a powerful message: Billboards appeared across London saying, ‘Thanks for the warm-up.’ It created a buzz in London, that in turn generated global attention.
Here I asked Philip to delve into the word ‘superhumans.’ It is a word we hear a lot in the UK. Did it demonstrate a breakthrough?
‘When Channel 4 came up with this. I wasn’t happy with the two words when they were brought into one. Because we’re not superhuman, we’re not greater than being human. We’re super, and we are human. We’re good people. And we happen to be athletes, or coaches. But Channel 4 stuck to superhumans as one word, and it was a fantastic success. It was an advert, an introduction to the Paralympics that was not just showed by Channel 4, but the BBC, ITV, SKY. It was a fantastic way of getting the British public to follow the Paralympics. It paid off.’
When asked about the London Games’ impact on the international stage, for Philip so many teams recalled back on London fondly. The Hungarians said to me ‘they competed with their national team, but they felt that they were back at home’. And this wasn’t with just the Paralympics, but also the Olympics too. The spectators weren’t completely partisan, they supported everybody. And that’s what we find at the Paralympics anyway. I was sat next to the Head of the Paralympic movement in China for the swimming, the same night Ellie Simmonds won one of her medals. He said to me, “there is something extra special here.” I have been to China around 18 times before the games, and for a Chinese man to say that, it takes a lot, especially as the Beijing Games were excellent’.
During the opening ceremony of the Games, Philip sat next to the Queen. Try as I might to discover the private conversations that occurred between the two, he joked: ‘I’ll find myself in the Tower if I share them with you!’
Part II of this blog will be published on Wednesday 14 October
 McLaren Independent Investigation Report – Part 1https://www.wada-ama.org/en/resources/doping-control-process/mclaren-independent-investigation-report-part-i
 The Official London 2012 Olympic Games Bid Film “Inspiration”. https://vimeo.com/130599690
Timothy Moots is a Senior Editor at Strife and a PhD Candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.