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The gift of sport.

Key Message

The athletes at the paralympics, were on the whole supremely confident and fulfilled. That came directly from the sport they play, and it is unlikely that, for most of them, it could have been achieved to such an extent in any other way.


White, Peter. (2002). The gift of sport. Community Care, January 24, 2002.


Sport can provide disabled people with huge opportunities for fulfilment and personal growth, says Peter White, whose own experiences at a boarding school for blind children taught him an array of skills.

Some of my most redeeming memories of the otherwise unrelieved grimness of boarding school have to do with sport. There were over a hundred visually-impaired children at my first school in Bristol, with ages ranging from four to 20, but I have never known a group of kids so universally wedded to sport of every kind: soccer, cricket, rugby, the Wimbledon tennis championships. If it involved competition, we followed it.

Back in the 1950s, not many of us had our own individual radios and before any major sporting event the wireless room began to fill up with youngsters trying to get close enough to our very temperamental radio to be able to hear what was going on. Our queuing and scrabbling for a place was every bit as manic as the similar process I remember at university in the late 1960s for the BBC’s Match of the Day, or Top of the Pops. Outsiders might find it odd that blind youngsters whose dreams of playing as centre-forward for Spurs, or scoring a century for England, were even more unrealistic than most children’s, should even bother with sport, but we did, to the exclusion of most other activities.


Part of the explanation is, that though sport has an undeniably large visual element, it has many other things too that can be satisfyingly followed: quite apart from the communicable excitement of the crowd, it has statistics, it has shape and, unlike many aspects of life, it has a clear result.

We played too, of course. There was not a game imaginable that we could not find ways to adapt to our needs. Cricket and football were played with balls that rattled, either by putting bells or lead shot in them. We practised athletics either by following a looped spool on a rope stretched between two posts, and later, as we became more sophisticated, by being called from the end of the track on a megaphone. “Left, Left, right!” our games-master would bellow. When he stopped, you knew that the kid in question had either completed the course, or crashed into the nettles at the side of the track. And even less likely games, such as tennis and rugby, though not played officially, were adapted by us in our spare time. If we had to change the rules of games to make them more “visually-impaired friendly”, then so be it. It did not detract from our enjoyment of cricket that the ball had to bounce twice before reaching the crease of a totally blind batsman, or that the same player in the field was allowed to catch the ball off one bounce; it was still cricket, as far as we were concerned.

The point is, this was not just fun. I am quite convinced that amid all the official training of how to walk about safely with a cane, nothing had a bigger effect on my subsequent confidence and willingness to travel anywhere as an adult, than the need to run to get a ball. If getting around is presented as a lesson, a skill to be learned, and it is immediately turned into a chore. But present it as necessary to score a goal, or prevent a four going over the boundary, and suddenly you don’t need to justify it, it becomes an imperative. The most worrying aspect of integrated education I believe is the danger that children will be sidelined in games, or at best given some token involvement, at the cost of acquiring enormous physical confidence, not to mention a lot of fun.

During the Paralympics, an interesting debate blew up about whether there was a conflict between the relatively high resources that had been directed toward sport, and other facilities for disabled people. It was a fair point, but I thought it was unfair to relate it only to disability. After all, you could complain about the amount of cash and attention devoted to mainstream sport.

What was very clear to me was that the athletes I met at the paralympics, from the superstars like Tani Grey-Thompson to the guy who won a medal for Boccia, a sport for disabled people which has very little attention even in paralympic terms, were on the whole supremely confident and fulfilled. That came directly from the sport they play, and it is unlikely that, for most of them, it could have been achieved to such an extent in any other way.

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