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James has had an extremely varied sporting career. This includes 8 years on the GB International athletics team during which he won double gold at 1984 Summer Paralympic Games in New York and 16 years on the British winter sports team competing in cross-country skiing.

He also coached and acted as a guide runner for Darren Cook, a completely blind middle-distance runner, when he took three gold medals at the World Youth Games for the Disabled at St Etienne in the 1980s. He still considers this his greatest sporting achievement.

Early life

Born in County Down, Northern Ireland, with a visual impairment, James Brown discovered his passion for cycling at the age of five and running at the age of 13. 

Talking about his time at the Royal National College for the Blind in Worcester, James says:

I had two teachers at school who were a big influence on me. Not so much by their example, but just by their support. It was a boarding school in Worcester, and at the weekends there were two of the teachers who just seemed always to be there for me. If I wanted to go and run or train at a session in Birmingham, which was a 40 minutes’ drive, they were just there. They really enabled me, and I am just so grateful to them for that…. One was the PE teacher, and one was a guy who was employed at the school to take kids out on adventure activities and stuff. And even if it was just me and one of them in the school minibus driving to Manchester for a competition, it would still happen. They were the guys that really got me to where I got initially.

Returning to the school as part of a volunteering scheme, James, who had always wanted to be a teacher, began training students he saw as having a potential future in athletics and became a become a guide runner. 

His international career began in 1980 when he competed in cross-country skiing in Norway.

Life as a Paralympic athlete

In 1982 James was a member of the British Paralympic Team for the 1982 Disabled Alpine World Championships. He went on to represent Great Britain in a range of cross-country skiing events at the Paralympic Winter Games in Innsbruck in 1984 and 1988 and Albertville in 1992 before winning two golds in athletics at the New York 1984 Summer Paralympic Games.

Having stepped back from competition in 1992 to focus on raising his family and entrepreneurship, in 2003 James shifted his focus to swimming and, although he had no intention of returning to serious competition, reached the qualifying stages for Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games.

The announcement of London as the 2012 Paralympics venue started James thinking about making a comeback. Joining a mountain biking club in Cheltenham in 2010, supported on club rides by members who were happy to guide him, James saw his fitness return and decided to try some road time trials. 

Joining the Irish squad, and partnering with sighted pilot Damien Shaw in 2011, the pair were selected to compete at the London 2012 Paralympic Games winning bronze in the Men's Time Trial.

Recollections

James believes the London Paralympics were significant in gaining recognition for disabled sport

Everybody knows that the London Paralympics were something special, like never happened before. And, some are saying, might never happen again – in terms of the audiences and the atmosphere. I think Rio could be great. I am actually, directly as a result to what happened in London, proud to be disabled, whereas I was embarrassed to be disabled before. I actually sit on the bus and on the train now and I take my phone and I look close at it and I don’t care, if people watch and think blimey, he is looking very close to his phone there must be something wrong with him. Whereas actually now I feel that I am being public about my sight impairment and I am actually proud of it. And that is because Paralympians are now recognised, whereas we weren’t before. It is really nice to hear people who previously have had no experience, no interest in Paralympic sport or maybe disability, talking in pubs knowledgeably about the subtle differences between the T 44 and the T 45 200 metre race, and the capabilities of the athletes in the two categories and why they might put them in the same race together and whether that is fair. That was a conversation which I overheard recently from two guys who were sat at a bar and obviously had no prior experience or interest in Paralympic sport, I think that is just amazing.

He also speaks of the progress made in the organisation of the Paralympics and the growing sense of inclusion:

I think Britain is becoming really good at inclusion, a lot of my work is inclusion. I don’t think inclusion in education works. It should, it is a great idea and if it was properly resourced it could work. And it works for some very well. At the time it wouldn’t have worked for me, but I think there is a lot of good stuff going on in this country about inclusion. I think the last few Paralympic Games have been run by the same organisation in the same venue as the Olympics and I think so many people have actually said to me and to others that they were even more interested and even more excited by the Paralympics than they were by the Olympics. The Olympics was great, the Paralympics was even better. The Channel 4 advert which came up between the two Games promoting the upcoming Paralympics and saying to the BBC: Thanks for the warm-up. That just says so, so much and so true as well. The Paralympics was just phenomenal. It was so well organised, and did so much for being disabled. It is great that the best-known Paralympians are as well-known now as the best-known Olympians. Maybe there isn’t the financial recognition yet, but it should come, it might come.

Retirement as a Paralympic athlete

Retiring from sport in 2015, James joined Mobiloo, a social enterprise that aims to provide portable toilets that are accessible for the disabled.

In 2016, Sport Ireland and Cycling Ireland announced that James had violated Article 2.3 of the Irish Anti-Doping Rules – evading sample collection, or without compelling justification, refusing or failing to submit to sample collection after notification as authorised under these rules or other anti-doping rules. He admitted the violation, which carries a maximum four-year ban, but after engaging in a consultation process with Sport Ireland, it was reduced to two years and six months based on his degree of fault and the seriousness of the violation.

In 2019, James was accused of climbing on to a British Airways plane and gluing himself to it during an Extinction Rebellion protest. Denying the charge of causing a public nuisance, at the court hearing he was granted conditional bail and barred from being within one mile (1.6 km) of an airport.

Achievements and awards

Paralympic Games

After his athletics success of two golds, in the Men’s 1,500 m B3 and Men’s 800 m B3, at the New York 1984 Paralympic Games for Great Britain, James, with sighted pilot Damien Shaw, won bronze in the Men’s Time Trial B at the London 2012 Paralympic Games for Ireland.

Other sporting events

James also competed in 18 Championship events that included track running, cross-country skiing, triathlon, swimming, road/track cycling. Despite his own visual impairment, he also guided totally blind runners.

At the 2014 Commonwealth Games, James, partnered with Dave Readle, represented Northern Ireland in the men's tandem sprint B and men's tandem time trial B, finishing fifth in both events.

An interview with James Brown

Interviewer Klara Janicki, November 2012

Visually impaired runner James Brown talks about guided running

James talks about the impact of the London 2012 Paralympic Games where he took bronze for Ireland in the cycling time trial

What do you consider your biggest achievement in sport and life?

It may seem odd, but my biggest achievement is somebody else’s achievement. After university I went back to my old school, the College for the Blind in Worcester, to see whether I liked teaching. I always thought I wanted to be a teacher, but I loved the school so much I just couldn’t get enough of it, so I went back and worked as a volunteer, started off just doing general support around the place. They had a scheme for volunteers and they had overseas students to come and work there, so I became one of those. But I quickly recognized there were a bunch of potential athletes who were not receiving the coaching and support that they needed in order to be able to achieve what they could. So I worked with half a dozen of the kids, who had the potential to be top sports people, coached them and actually acted as a guide runner for two of them. I have got enough sight to be able to run by myself, also enough to be able to guide somebody else luckily, but I suppose the fact that I’d spent seven years at the school learning the local roads, I was able to take two of the runners, one at a time obviously, totally blind guys.

One of them in particular was really interested in the middle distance events that I had done well, so I coached him and guided him, and worked with him over the course of the year and then went to the World Youth Games for the disabled in France, in Saint Ettienne. I was the middle distance coach for the team, but also Darren Cook’s guide-runner and we thought he might do ok, and he actually won his first race which was the 800 metres and we put him into the 1500 metres as well. Because there weren’t enough totally blind youngsters in the race, they combined all the sight categories together so he was running against the unguided partially-sighted runners. I remember to this day the realisation on about the third lap that we were going to catch the American runner, who was running without a guide, and I said to Darren, “I’m gonna stop talking”,(because one of the things you do as a guide you give a kind of a commentary on where you are in the field and I could see enough to realise that we were capturing the leading runner) and I said to Darren,

I’m gonna shut up because we’re going to take this guy by surprise.

And we overtook him on the bend coming into the last lap, and won the race.

We also decided to do the 400 metres which he won as well, and in fact he took six seconds off his personal best for 400 metres. He completely astonished himself and me; I had to let him go on the finishing straight because I couldn’t keep up with him. And it’s just sad, that he hasn’t been able to continue running because it’s very hard for blind runners to get guides of the right standard, I will still keep in touch with Darren but that was definitely my biggest achievement, guiding him to his three gold medals in the World games.

Download a pdf file of the full transcript here

References

  • ttps://jamesbrownparalympian.co.uk/sport
  • https://jamesbrownparalympian.co.uk/social-enterprise
  • Batt, Amanda, “The Role of UK Anti-Doping in the Fight Against Doping in Sport”, International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics, Vol. 3, Issue 2, (July 2011), 261-70.
  • International Olympic Committee, “Anti-Doping Rules-applicable to the Games of the XXXII Olympiad Tokyo 2020, (as of June 2019)”
  • https://www.paralympic.org/james-brown-0
  • Sport Ireland Anti-Doping, “The Irish Anti-Doping Rules 2021: Article 2.3”, (1st January 2021), 15-19.
  • https://www.insidethegames.biz/articles/1042636/double-paralympic-gold-medallist-banned-for-two-and-a-half-years-after-refusing-drugs-test
  • http://www.mandevillelegacy.org.uk/documents/James_Brown.pdf
  • https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/paralympian-explains-joined-extinction-rebellion-4280233
  • https://www.rte.ie/sport/cycling/2016/1013/823792-paralympian-james-brown-guilty-of-doping-violation/
  • https://metro.co.uk/2019/10/12/ex-paralympic-cyclist-glued-plane-denies-public-nuisance-10908224/
  • https://www.itv.com/news/2019-10-12/former-paralympic-cyclist-denies-gluing-himself-to-british-airways-plane
  • https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/uk-news/paralympic-cyclist-james-brown-accused-17223518
  • https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/breaking-paralympian-climbs-top-ba-20552376
  • https://www.independent.ie/sport/other-sports/cycling/irish-paralympic-medallist-given-lengthy-ban-for-doping-violation-35128224.html
  • https://extra.ie/2016/10/17/sport/sport-extra/irish-paralympic-medallist-james-brown-guilty-doping-violation
  • http://www.thedownrecorder.co.uk/pages/index.asp?title=Portaferry%E2%80%99s_James_claims_bronze_at_Paralympics
  • https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-50000110