It was announced last week that former GB canoe coach Penny Briscoe would be Paralympic GB’s Chef de Mission at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Jen Offord caught up with Briscoe for a chat about her illustrious career, and the changing attitudes towards the movement.
You’ve seen a massive progression in Britain’s Paralympian fortunes, since the disastrous 1996 Atlanta games to finishing second in the medal table in Rio last summer, as well as a changing attitude towards disability sport. What’s it been like to oversee that?
When I first started as performance manager at the British Paralympic Association (BPA) in 2001, I didn’t recognise too much as what I had seen from an elite perspective, though there were little glimpses at that point. There were only two full-time members of staff across all of the Paralympic sports in Great Britain.
I did spend some time thinking whether I had made the right decision, but it was a case of roll your sleeves up and do something from the inside, or stay on the outside and throw stones, and that just didn’t seem to make any sense.
The guy that had recruited me then left within six months, and I managed to get a promotion to Director of Sport from May 2002, which allowed me to use my imagination in terms of the programmes we had in place and recruit new people to add to the team of nine at the BPA when I first started.
There have been some pretty seminal moments over the last 15 years in terms of things that created the potential to change and have a positive performance impact.
A lot of athletes credit the turnaround of Team GB, Paralympic GB and elite sport in the UK to Lottery funding. Are there any other specific factors that have contributed to Paralympic GB’s increased success?
When I arrived in 2001, funding for Paralympic sport was really, really small, almost token. Paralympic sport didn’t necessarily benefit in the same way at that stage, because we were still in development. The BPA had only existed since 1989, so the movement in the UK was in its infancy. It wasn’t necessarily ready for funding at that time.
But there were really great athletes in the UK. They didn’t necessarily sit in really sophisticated programmes and one of the things that we started to work on was trying to drive standards up, for example, by looking at the qualification standards for Athens. We took quite a small team to Athens relative to the team we’d taken to Sydney, so we were really trying to take a higher quality team to maximise medal potential.
In terms of seminal moments, awarding the 2012 games to London was a massive moment for British sport, as well as Paralympic sport because that was the time when funding really started to change and UK Sport took a line that it would fund pretty well every sport to maximise our home games. Also the media spotlight turned on Paralympic sport for the first time and the British public embraced it.
“Our athletes want to be recognised for sporting brilliance first and foremost, absolutely. They want to be recognised as athletes. The fact that they are brilliant at what they do creates inspiration.”
I remember running around my living room screeching when the announcement was made – you couldn’t control the emotion – because I knew in the environment I was working in this was probably the biggest thing that had ever happened and the biggest opportunity we’d ever been afforded.
It meant a shift in the level of professionalism and the ability of athletes to train on a full-time basis with better technical teams around. We’ve always had good athletes but we’re now in a different era.
Where do we go from Rio? Can we ever compete with China?
That’s a massive ask. China’s population with an impairment is greater than that of the UK, so its talent pool is in excess of 60 million disabled people. So the answer there is probably not, but what we achieved between London and Rio was quite remarkable.
Before Rio, despite all the challenges – were the games going to go ahead? What cut would the Paralympic Games get? Would the transport work? Would the venues be ready? – we were able to field the most exciting Paralympic team with medal potential in every sport. What was remarkable was the conversion rate of that potential into actual podium performance.
What kind of challenges facing athletes at grassroots level could be addressed in order to help widen the talent pool and get more people into disability sport?
Things like the NHS announcement this week, about sporting prosthetics for younger children, is a massive step forward. There’s a commitment towards broadening the opportunities and a recognition that to be fit and healthy you’ve got to have opportunity, and for someone with a leg impairment, for example, a technical prosthetic is required.
One of the things that changed in the post-London 2012 era is that the British media did a fantastic job promoting and presenting the games and that is one of the ways in which doors have opened, in terms of a realisation that Paralympic sports are out there, and the richness and diversity of the types of sport you can compete in and the impairment groups that exist.
As well as that, pretty well every school-age kid did a project on the Paralympics in 2012 and 2016 and that has done a massive amount to break down barriers and raise awareness in terms of the power of sport. Also, local authorities are far more aware in terms of their responsibilities to ensure they create opportunities for people with a disability.
There’s more of a momentum, in terms of awareness that opportunity needs to be there for every single person within British society to be able to participate in sport and to have a healthy lifestyle.
Absolutely, the media thing is crucial, but also the positive presentation of role models and I think in that respect we’re blessed in many ways in Paralympic sport because we’ve got so many role models.
We have so many multi-medalists who are female, that show just how phenomenal these women are, whether it be Kadeena Cox with medals in two different sports, or Sophie Christiansen, Dame Sarah Storey, Ellie Robinson coming out and giving it some attitude – there are so many.
It’s really important, and it’s one of the things that makes me proud to work in the movement I do, is that we have so many talented athletes and so many of them are female.
In terms of promoting the Sochi Winter Paralympics, Channel 4 produced some great coverage and going back to the gender balance, we had two female skiers – one who won four medals, the other, Kelly Gallagher, who won the first ever gold on snow for Britain across Olympic or Paralympic programmes.
We’re going into this games [2018 Pyeongchang] with two of the best visually impaired skiers in the world and they will take the headlines, without a doubt. We’ve also got new snowboard athletes, potentially new Nordic athletes and we’ve got wheelchair curling.
We’re not necessarily the best fit for winter sports as a nation, but that is changing through funding and that is changing quite radically. The winter games helps us to lift the profile of Paralympic sport as well, using the power of sport, creating positive imagery to change the way that people think about disability. That higher purpose is at the forefront of our thinking as an organisation.
There have been a couple of stories in the press recently involving Paralympic athletes, for example Kadeena Cox’s participation in The Jump on Channel 4, and the risks involved in that, as well Anne Wafula Strike who recently went public about horrendous treatment she endured on public transport. How do you think that contributes?
I’m looking forward to seeing Kadeena competing on The Jump. She will have considered all the potential risks and opportunities when making the decision to take part. Featuring a Paralympian on a prime-time television programme is a fantastic way to raise public awareness of what is possible and to introduce one of our athletes to the public outside of the games.
I was pleased to see that this story [about Anne Wafula Strike] – as difficult as it must have been for Anne to share. It attracted so much attention as it highlighted the very real challenges that disabled people face.
As an organisation, our vision is ‘through sport, to inspire a better world for disabled people’ and part of the way in which we believe we achieve that is by giving Paralympians and para-athletes a higher profile and platform to speak about their experiences, as Anne did. Hopefully this will lead to changes in the way in which transport companies, not just rail companies, approach accessibility.
“Pretty well every school-age kid did a project on the Paralympics in 2012 and 2016 and that has done a massive amount to break down barriers and raise awareness in terms of the power of sport.”
Thinking about role models, there’s a sort of rhetoric around Paralympic athletes as being “brave” or “inspiring”. Do you think that rhetoric is OK or should people just get over it?
Our athletes want to be recognised for sporting brilliance first and foremost, absolutely. They want to be recognised as athletes. The fact that they are brilliant at what they do creates inspiration.
From my position, every athlete has a back story, maybe Paralympic athletes’ back stories are more interesting – I don’t know if that’s the right adjective, but the bottom line is if you talk to any athlete they want to talk to you about their sport, their level of performance and where they’re heading next. I work with incredible athletes and we’re in high-performance sport – that’s our mentality and we go to every Paralympic games wanting to be the best that we can be.
Channel 4 has done a brilliant job in bringing to life the richness of Paralympic Sport and though the athletes’ back stories will always be covered, we’re seeing better presentation by the British media than we’ve ever seen before. There were pictures of Paralympic athletes on the front pages, let alone the back pages and we’ve seen a massive shift by journalists.
What challenges have you faced as a woman in sport and are there any specific challenges female Paralympians face in sport?
I’m not sure there was much interest in Paralympic sport in 2001 and now far more accomplished professionals are working in Paralympic sport – it feels like there’s greater interest and greater desire to work in Paralympic sport than there was even a decade ago, so maybe I was in the right place at the right time and I took an opportunity.
I don’t feel that I’ve ever been challenged because I’m female, leading. I feel hugely privileged. I do it my way and in some ways I guess I’m unique in terms of how I lead the team. Maybe I’ve got a little bit more passion and emotion and emotional intelligence.
I’ve earned my stripes, working in the organisation for a decade before getting the Chef role, but leadership is not just about the person that sits at the top of the tree; it’s about the quality of the team that person sits in.
We’ve just announced the Pyeongchang leadership team and we’ve got one male deputy and two female deputies, plus a female chief press officer and I think that shows the BPA is very open in terms of who it recruits – which is right for the era we live in.
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Jen is a writer from Essex, which isn’t relevant because she lives in London, but she likes people to know it. As well as daft challenges, she likes cats, cheese and Beyonce. @inspireajen