Sir Philip Craven playing wheelchair basketball in 1984

Sir Philip Craven competing at the Stoke Mandeville 1984 Paralympics ©IPC

Sir Philip Craven MBE, 2014,

I believe that Paralympians through freedom contained within their minds produce incredible performances with their bodies, which when watched or listened to by others can inspire them to change their perceptions and thus change the world.

Early Life

Sir Philip was born on 4 July 1950 in Bolton and has firmly stuck to his northern roots throughout his life – maintaining his straight talking 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.

He has been passionate about sport his whole life and during his childhood was a keen cricketer, swimmer and tennis player.

In 1966, at the age of 16, he fell during a rock-climbing expedition which left him without the use of his legs.  However, he didn’t dwell on this and within a few days of his accident discovered wheelchair basketball when he saw it being played outside his window from his hospital bed. Something clicked and he took to it ‘like a duck to water’.

I loved the training (this is the difference with how I was at school when I was on my feet) I loved the training for wheelchair basketball just as much as I loved the playing.

He studied Geography at Manchester University where he also continued training extensively in wheelchair basketball – often spending 3-4 hours a day training at the McDougall Centre. He graduated in 1972 – but admitted that it really should have been a First class honours in wheelchair basketball!

Life as a Paralympic athlete

Sir Philip enjoyed a successful career as a wheelchair basketball athlete. He represented Great Britain in wheelchair basketball at five Paralympic Games, from 1972 to 1988.  He also competed on the track and in the pool during his first Paralympic Games in 1972.

He thrived on the international rivalry and national pride when representing your country on the international level:

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.

Sir Philip witnessed many changes and growth in the sport during his time as a Paralympic athlete – and it wasn’t without its challenges.  He felt the sport coaching needed reforming but was handed a lifetime ban in 1976 for causing friction within the team.  However, when the GB wheelchair basketball team performed poorly at the European Championships of 1977 he was invited back and decided to return as he strongly believed that the only way to truly reform anything was from the inside.

He also played a vital role in instigating a new system of classification in wheelchair basketball in the early 1980s. Sir Philip and many others felt that the old system of classification for wheelchair basketball was not working as it had been largely devised by the medical and physiotherapy communities with little input from the athletes and those involved with the individual sports. A new system devised by a doctor of Sports Science from Germany called Horst Strohkendl allowed a much fairer playing field.  Despite being up against a large amount of resistance, Sir Philip was instrumental in pushing this new system through in 1984, and it’s still by and large the system used to this day.

Retirement as a Paralympic athlete

Sir Philip has enjoyed a long career in sports administration following his retirement from wheelchair basketball.

In 1988, he was elected as Chairman of the Wheelchair Basketball Section of the International Stoke Mandeville Games Federation, becoming the first athlete to take the position.  He then went on to win the Presidency of the International Paralympic Committee – a position he held from 2001 to 2017 – whilst also serving as a member of the International Olympic Committee.

During his Presidency, the Paralympic Games became one of the largest sporting competitions in the world. 

Timothy Moots, Senior Editor at Strife wrote,

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)

One of Sir Philip's crucial interventions came in 2003, when he ensured the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) was guaranteed to receive a share of the broadcasting and marketing revenue generated by the Olympic and Paralympic Committees. When added to new commercial deals the IPC was negotiating, the organisation was on a much securer financial footing.

This in part led to the growing success of the Paralympic Games, first with the Beijing Games in 2008 and then with the great triumph of the London Paralympics in 2012 and then again in Rio 2016.

His Presidency was not without its challenges though, most notably during the lead up to the Rio games, with the financial mismanagement by the organisers in Brazil meaning the Games were at risk of not happening at all.  This was coupled with the IPC banning Russia from competing following the publication of reports alleging the presence of state-sponsored doping. 

Still, thanks in very large part to Sir Philip, the Games were able to take place and were extremely successful in the end, attracting the second biggest audiences ever (after London 2012).

Achievements and awards

Paralympic Games

Sir Philip represented Great Britain in wheelchair basketball at five Paralympic Games, from 1972 to 1988.  He also competed on the track and in the pool at the 1972 Games.

Other sporting events

Sir Philip won the gold medal at the wheelchair basketball World Championships in 1973, and took bronze in 1975.  He also won two gold medals and a silver at the European Championships and another gold at the Commonwealth Paraplegic Games in 1970.

Other awards and recognition

Sir Philip was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 1991 New Years Honours List, received a knighthood in the 2005 Queen's Birthday Honours and awarded the Paralympic Order in 2017. He is also an Honorary President of the National Paralympic Heritage Trust.

He has achieved many great things throughout his long career driven by this aim:

enabling Paralympic athletes to achieve excellence and inspire the world

 Sir Philip Craven, Eva Loeffler and Dr Guttmanns great grandchildren cut the ribbon at the official opening.

Sir Philip opening the National Paralympic Heritage Centre in 2019

References

  • http://www.strifeblog.org/2020/10/12/from-athlete-to-international-sports-leader-an-interview-with-sir-philip-craven-part-1/
  • https://www.wheelpower.org.uk/characters/sir-philip-craven-mbe
  • https://www.olympic.org/the-ioc
  • https://www.paralympic.org/
  • https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/sir-philip-craven-meet-real-straight-shooter-8081245.html
  • https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/81122408
  • https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/disability-sport/41161684
  • https://www.boltonschool.org/former-pupils/100-inspiring-minds/sir-philip-craven/
  • https://www.paralympic.org/news/ipc-president-stresses-importance-para-sport-rehabilitation?fbclid=IwAR05xZNLCZoPx-jzDDZWJVO-GYRirYY2a9FKZy30PVI0Kx6BHwps8vkYZxE
  • https://www.paralympicheritage.org.uk/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=33716a77-a4bb-463d-90be-9dadfac526fa

The impact of the 1992 Barcelona Games on Sir Philip

Classification of wheelchair basketball

Watch Sir Philip Craven describe the battle within wheelchair basketball to change the system of player classification that began in the late 1970s and culminated in 1982-3

An extract from a 2013 interview with Sir Philip where he gives a whistle stop tour through the games from 1972 in Heidelberg through what he sees as the pivotal change for Paralympic basketball in 1992 in Barcelona and finishing with the Games in Sydney in 2000.

 “Then in 70 we had wonderful indoor facilities at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh and then we went on to Heidelberg, ‘cos it wasn’t in Munich in 72, it was in Heidelberg, but still the facilities as I remember them were for me tremendous. Cos of course I’m developing now – I’m only 22 there and I remember in 72 seeing Ed Owen, the great American player, the TV came down just to film him shooting baskets and it seemed to me that like in 15 minutes I don’t know if he missed more than 2 or 3... And so all this was developing already in my mind.

I was seeing the potential of the sport of wheelchair basketball.

But really that was 72, then we went through 76, Toronto, which was a bit of a side event in comparison to what was going on in Montreal. And similarly of course nothing happened in the Soviet Union in 1980, it was in Arnhem and the only thing I remember from that is they’d got some sponsor of flooring to put down the flooring for the wheelchair basketball court but it was this sprung spongy flooring which was useless for wheelchairs - it might have been ok for runners and jumpers in stand-up basketball. And I remember having to fill in a five-page questionnaire towards the end of the tournament with regard to injuries we’d sustained, because it was like pushing through sand trying to play wheelchair [basketball], terrible – so again another example of something that was really bad for the sport. 84, the guy ran off with the money from the University of Illinois, so we were in Stoke Mandeville - again a very small basketball arena, but packed all the time and great atmosphere from it. So that was 84. 

88, for the first time the games came back to be with the Olympics in Seoul; great facilities, but when you’ve got about a thousand spectators in a facility that’ll hold 15,000 it’s not very good; it would've been better to have been in a facility where maybe there were seats only for a thousand and it was packed. So, Seoul it was great that the principle that we came back together with the Olympics but then that relationship had to develop, and of course I had nothing to do with the developing of that relationship at that time in 88. I retired in 88 but then became president of IWBF, I was technical delegate for wheelchair basketball for the next three summer games, which were Barcelona, Atlanta and then Sydney.

It was Barcelona that really (and I still say this to this day, even after by far the greatest games ever in London last year) were the games that made the biggest difference, where there was no charge, it was free entry, but the stadia were packed out. On the first night of a pretty poor women’s wheelchair basketball game between Spain and the USA there were six and half thousand watching that; the following night the Spanish men’s team took on the USA, there were twelve and a half thousand inside and four thousand outside who were being told to go and watch it on their TVs at home.

And so it was the first time that hundreds of thousands (and I’m sure in the end it was probably one and a half million) fans came out to watch Paralympic sport and (something clicked in my head then) that was it, we’re on a roll here! And[in] my view of the International Paralympic Committee, (which had been founded in 89, but was not responsible for the games in 92; it was a former organisation which ran those; the first games they [IPC] were responsible for was the winter games in Lillehammer in 94) they did not pick up on the potential of the Paralympics; we didn’t have a good games in Atlanta (like they didn’t have good Olympic Games) where money, money, money was the only thing that counted and nobody saw that Paralympic sport and the Paralympic games could generate any money therefore we had very poor games in Atlanta; and then we had brilliant games again in Sydney. And it was Sydney that took what I’d seen (and I hoped others had seen) in Barcelona and really brought it to the world. I mean there were more spectators watching wheelchair basketball in Sydney than there were for basketball in the Olympics (the reason being that there were a lot less media so there were a lot more paying seats available, that’s the reason, I’m only making the point).

Sydney was amazing and the Paralympic movement has been growing at a rapid pace ever since. But it’s that Barcelona experience that’s still so bright in my mind.

Download a pdf file of the full transcript here