TIC TALK Podcasts

Exploring personal experiences of inclusion

TIC TALK 11: Eric Russell

A podcast with Eric Russell
Eric Russell

Eric Russell

Paralympian

Eric Russell is a former Paralympic athlete and current classifier with a story to tell. A unique story and one that would cause a major international incident should it happen today. But is was 1976. Listen to this great podcast with a great Paralympian.

Transcript TIC TALK with Eric Russell

Peter:

Welcome to today’s Tic Talks. Imagine yourself in this situation; you’re an elite athlete, you’ve trained and made it to the Paralympics Games, it’s 1976 and you win a gold medal. As someone comes up to give you your gold medal, you refuse to accept it. Welcome, Eric Russell, to today’s Tic Talks. Can you tell me about, just briefly, Eric, to 1976 and if that happened today, I would imagine it would be an international incident like no other. But what was the principle, you’re very principled, very acutely aware of human rights, I know that for a fact. What happened in 1976?

Eric:

Thanks for the welcome, Peter. Look, it wasn’t a spontaneous thing, it was something that had built up in the months and I was studying with a guy at University of Queensland and I knew about the problems they were having and because South Africa had brought multi-racial teams to our games, they were included in the Paralympics. Canadian government didn’t like it, they withdrew all the money that they promised and incidentally, within a couple of weeks, the public having heard about it, had donated more than the government was going to be giving anyway.

So that finished up on the positive side but I was quite, quite concerned at governments who for, perhaps the first time, were using people with a disability to make political points and it was particularly evident when the Jamaican team turned up in their bright uniforms and were told they could stay at the village but they couldn’t compete. And so the issue of South Africa was what probably caused all of the angst. But when the guy came up to give me the medal and I discussed what I was going to do with one of my very good lifelong friends, Tracy Freeman, who was also a paralympian, and it had to be the first medal that

I won, otherwise it wasn’t a genuine effort, I think.

But interestingly enough, the poor guy came up to me and instead of bowing my head to get the medal, I said, “I’m refusing this medal as a personal protest against governments using people with a disability to make political points.” And he just looked at me and he said, “What do I do now?” And a young guy, Bill Guide, who was holding the pillow with the medals on it, was the only one I think that had any presence of mind to say, “Put it back on the pillow and award the silver medal.”So that’s how it happened.

Then the controversy that followed that was due mostly to the fact, and we didn’t know at the time, or I didn’t anyway, that it was being broadcast to the whole of North America and it also made a function where all the team managers and team captains with the government and that caused Ludwig Goodman just about had kittens over that. And he’d fought for a long time trying to keep the politics out of the sport and I think at the time, I was a real idealist, I didn’t think it should happen and I’ve since learned a lesson actually. It’s difficult to keep politics out of everything, that it’s not easy, Peter, to give away a medal, and that one kept coming back to me on the aeroplane coming home, I had to knock it back again. And it ended up with my girlfriend at the time and I finished up donating it to, with its history, to an auction for a rugby player that had cancer in Queensland, I think. That was auctioned on the night and it was bought by real estate group who put the back page of the Sunday up and framed that and framed the medal so it’s in a—

Peter:

Ended with good use at the end kind of?

Eric:

Well it did because—and that was interesting, too, it was the last item on the list and the second last was a rugby jersey where the wearer had, and I think his name was Shore, scored four against the Kiwis. And that went for some 480-odd dollars I think and the first bid on the medal I’d refused was 480. And Bob Taggleton, the coach and auctioneer, he knocked it down straightaway and when they said you could have gotten more, Bob, Bob said there’s nothing worth more than a fourth try jersey. So that’s how it happened.

So yeah and I guess one of the sad things was that that story has been a bit misrepresented at the time but hopefully now with the Wikipedia page and that will straighten that out very shortly.

Peter:

Well since those days, obviously you’ve been to a number of Paralympics games and been an ambassador to disability sport in this country and internationally, that history a little bit because you’re—very interesting history. I’ve worked with Eric in delivering disability education and inclusion classes and coaching courses for a number of years. How many games did you take part in, Eric?

Eric:

Not as many as I should have, actually, because my first internationals were 1974 and in 1978, sort of a comedy of errors, one might say. I finished up being elected as the chairman internationally of wheelchair athletics at that time the old Stoke Mandeville system. And so for 10 years there, it was not possible to compete at Paralympics. I did actually compete in the 1981 but I was quite distracted by the other job and I resigned that role in Seoul in 1988 and then went on to coaching and interest in classification, basically. I had my last games in Barcelona in 92.

Peter:

Okay. And then you went certainly, to jump forward a little bit into the late 90s and 2000s and you’ve got a lot of education programs around. Do you think—we’re in 2013 now, how about this for a question, we’re in 2013 now, do you think things have changed much for the better being involved in education 10 years ago, 14 years ago, something like that. Do you think that education has made a difference now?

Eric:

Yeah definitely. I don’t think there’s any argument about that, there’s no debate we were the best kept secret in sport. When I started in the 70s, I don’t know how the guys who started in the 60s got on but nobody knew anything about Paralympics. And we did an awful lot of work in the sporting field without doing an awful lot in the public field. So sporting people and sporting organizations knew a lot more about us than what the general public did and I think it’s only the last, well, two Paralympics, I think, maybe Sydney as well but from Sydney in Australia certainly, the public recognition picked up substantially.

Peter:

Do you think sometimes—the games in London were obviously huge, massive. I was in the UK for the London games. I’ve talked about role models and the influence of the games. Do you think that’s a long lasting influence or is that just something that happens once every four years and that’s very nice?

Eric:

I think there’s a legacy that builds and the two legacies that you leave after major games, the first one, I think, is very important too is the stadiums, the equipment that’s left over. I mean, you get 20 power lifting benches and suddenly, they’re all over the country being used by people with disabilities for exercise and training. And so the equipment is very, very important, the venues and then the last thing is the impression it has on the general public is you know, I think it’s what creates the support for the next time around.

Peter:

So you’re involved now in classification quite a bit. For people who are perhaps listening to this who don’t understand classification, do you believe it’s something that can both open doors for people with disabilities to get involved in sport, it also can be a barrier sometimes as well. What about the grassroots level, can you try and explain that a little bit to people listening, how can classification on the one hand, be really great for inclusion but on the other hand, it can be really, really bad as well.

Eric:

I agree with you, the two things I think that’s important to remember when you begin discussing classification and the first one is we cannot possibly cover all disabilities and all types of disabilities. So we’ve tended to concentrate on the most relevant in the society. Now that’s not the same in every society so that creates a little bit of a problem. The second thing about it is that we must make a minimum disability criteria and that means you’ve got to have an impairment that impinges upon the activity.

So if we are talking, for instance, about the common one of running, you know, if you have an amputation, it doesn’t necessarily impinge upon your activity. And we’ve got the situation, for instance, if you have an arm amputation above the wrist, you’re allowed to do things where that would be a deficit in the 100, 200, 400 and the jumps. But that has virtually impairment when you’re talking about running distance events. So 800, 1500 marathon, we don’t cover people with below elbow but above elbow, we do.

And basically, classification, everybody knows what classification is so we classify by age, we classify by weight divisions, we classify by the length of the sailing boat and by the amount of sails they’re supposed to carry and I think the only one they don’t do, that’s America’s Cup because that seems to be free for all. However people really know what it is, weigh divisions in boxing and in power lifting and in weight lifting are all classifications.

Peter:

And gender?

Eric:

Gender is the major one of course.

Peter:

So what do you think, in terms of—the best definition I’ve heard of classification is the purpose of classification is to minimize the impact of the impairment on the outcome of the competition is the one that I always, hopefully, I always use, it’s pretty accurate. What about at the grassroots level, it’s often misinterpreted where people with disabilities can’t understand why they can’t compete in events for people with disabilities.

Eric:

Yes, yes. I guess there are some disabilities that don’t impinge upon the sport and some disabilities you can play different sports or do different activities where there’s not an impingement and one could probably think about things like how blind do you have to be to be in blind sports? And it was interesting, I had an Australian athlete tell me at the world championships in July that he found it quite different, he ran without a guide but he couldn’t see more than four or five metres around him. But he said that the information that the runner running with the guide got was better than he had because the guide could tell him where all the other runners were and what position he was and where he should be putting in a bit extra.

Peter:

Cool.

Eric:

Yeah. It’s a different slant on it, isn’t it?

Peter:

Yeah, it is, isn’t it?

Eric:

Yeah, yeah.

Peter:

Where do you think it’s going to go in the future? You know there’s always continuous work, classification and what do you think the ultimate—obviously there’s no perfect system, it’s not an exact science by any stretch of the imagination but where do you think it might go in a few years’ time?

Eric:

I think it’s getting better and better and better over the years, Peter, because in Leon, we took maybe 150 photographs of the different positions that you put a person in to measure different movement. So hopefully what’ll come out of that is we will standardize the testing process and although there will still be some individual differences in it, if you put everybody in the same position, you’ve got a better chance of coming up with a similar answer in terms of muscle strength or range of movement or that type of impairment. So we’re working very, very, very hard at trying to standardize things.

Sometimes things can go too far and there’s a move afoot now which may happen in November this year whereby they’re trying to place everybody in the same type of throwing chair facing in the same direction and tied in the same way, in other words, to eliminate legs from seated throwing. And that’s really, in my opinion, dynamite because it makes a mockery of the athletics background goals that we’ve been striving for in that faster, higher, stronger and now we’re saying we’re going to restrict your movement. I mean, the reason we have classes is because people have different degrees of movement so I think that’s going to end up as the next controversy in athletics anyway.

Peter:

Interesting. I heard you jump around a little bit, I have a couple more questions. I heard you talk quite a number of times as you were talking in front of prime ministers and all sorts of things and you told this wonderful story a few times about acquiring a disability gave you new opportunities in life you possibly wouldn’t have had. You’ve been all over the world, you’ve met presidents and prime ministers and all sorts of things in your life and you have a fantastic life in that way. That’s a really powerful story that you told, can just sort of repeat it a little bit here?

Eric:

I’m not sure which story you’re referring to here. But one of the things that struck me was in 1971 when I had my spinal cord injury, you lied in bed for eight weeks while the bands heal. I remember looking at the top of my bed and seeing in text or writing about two inches high, the words Professor Neville Sutton, who was a wonderful old guy and head of the spinal injuries unit. And underneath that in biro about a centimetere high, I saw Russell Eric and it gave me the idea of the relative importance of people in the spinal injuries unit and patients were quite low.

What struck me at that time was that even though it was in small writing, I didn’t know who I was anymore. And I was a football, meat pies, kangaroos, Holden cars, typical Aussie, I knew what I was capable of doing and suddenly I had no measure of that at all. And I credit wheelchair sports in particular with allowing me to compare myself against other people with similar levels of disability and reestablishing identity. And I made myself a promise while I was in hospital that I would do whatever I had to do to do whatever I wanted to do. And that’s been my philosophy and a lot of people will tell you that the eagle’s gone over the top and they’re probably right. And I’ve always had a very egalitarian outlook on life and a typical Aussie, I’ve never treated anybody any different than anybody else. So whether it was a crown prince or a prime minister or whatever, they are all interesting people.

Peter:

Excellent and you are a very interesting man yourself, Eric. What’s in store for you the next few years?

Eric:

Well I’m gonna keep on classifying because I quite like that and rotary has become a really, really big part of my life over the last 10 or 15 years in particular, I was lucky enough to be district governor two years ago. And so between rotary and trying to stay fit and classification, I’ve got a fairly full life, I think. It’s excellent.

Peter:

I reckon you have, Eric. Well thank you very much for joining us today on Tic Talks.

Eric:

Thank you, Peter.