TIC TALK Podcasts

Exploring personal experiences of inclusion

TIC TALK 17: Peter Curruthers

A podcast with Peter Curruthers
November 2014
Peter Curruthers

Peter Curruthers

Former Paralympian

Peter Curruthers is a former Paralympic athlete who now runs a successful wheelchair development business in Leicester. An entertaining and fascinating discussion with a veteran Paralympic athlete.

 

Transcript TIC TALK with Peter Curruthers

Peter:

In today’s Tic Talks, we’re talking to Peter Curruthers. Peter Curruthers is a veteran Paralympic athlete and currently runs a wheelchair construction business in Leicester. I started by asking Peter about the major changes he’d seen in Paralympic and sport and wheelchair racing over his long career.

Peter C:

Oh well in wheelchair racing, I guess the main change has been to go from four wheels to three wheelers which was big, which—

Peter:

When was that, exactly?

PC:

That was 1988 or 89 probably but I think at the end of 88 I think and towards 89. And that was to do with—there became a difference between the people who were using chairs for road racing and people who were using it for track racing. The details of it now escape me but the upshot of it was we all ended up using three wheelchairs with a front-facing fork and a sprung cylinder holding it in a straight line. Previously there had been three wheelers but with a castering front wheel so they were very unstable. And then all of the four wheelers were like conventional chairs. And I think Bob Hall was the first person to get in to do the marathon to do the Boston Marathon in the 70s and things.

Peter:

I imagine it made a huge difference in performance times at that time, did it make a huge difference or was it slow over time?

PC:

I don’t think it’s made a huge difference, I think it’s always just been incremental that as the athletes have got better, as training’s got better, the equipment’s got better, times have come down. But I think it’s a little bit of everything. You know the three-wheeler was a big noticeable change but not a huge difference in performance.

Peter:

It’d be impossible, wouldn’t it, to tell amateurs due to chair technology or training techniques or just a few, a number of athletes taking part these days are much greater—

PC:

People now get rehabilitated where once upon a time—and even survive, people might kind of—level of injury, once upon a time it was only that the western world did it and the Japanese, I guess the Japanese and Australians and then western Europe, America and western Europe.

Peter:

When did you first compete, when was that?

PC:

My injury was in 77. And so I began to compete in stuff probably around 1980 I should think. So yeah, I would guess so.

Peter:

What do you think today, you have your business now designing wheelchairs etcetera, what do you think are some of the—in that area, some of the position of young people today or people today in terms of access to wheelchairs and how do you think it’s affected their lives because you’ve been at the forefront of that for quite some time now.

PC:

I think that disabled kids who have got a need for exercise and fun and play experience the same things now as their able-bodied counterparts, they can play and of course, bits. In some respects, the way that the sport is developed, it’s taken a lot of the fun and the playthings out of it but I think that’s maybe just an old man talking because I think they say that about all sports, that it’s—you now can be a professional disabled sports person. And a lot of people are full time athletes, that was not something that I’d ever experienced ever although I did—took six months out of work really before the Seoul Paralympics because I thought that I would give it my best chance. Or my wife would probably give me my best chance, kept me way from work and my work myself.

Peter:

Kept going, kept going. You must have seen many athletes come and go while you were there, what’s some of the highlights for you in terms of purely athletic experiences you’ve had both personal and for other people as well?

PC:

The people, you mean, that are involved, the personalities?

Peter:

Personalities and people, type of people you have met. You’ve met people from around the world in this area.

PC:

Yeah. Yeah I’ve met some people who have been my—I would say great admirer Matson the Swedish tetraplegic, he was the same level of injury as me and a really accomplished athlete and a tax lawyer expert by profession, so quite an impressive guy. And then he moved into wheelchair rugby and played wheelchair rugby at a high level, represented his country at wheelchair rugby, so he was one of them. Rina Koushall was a friend of mine, is a friend of mine, he made wheelchairs which are now owned by Invacare, he was quite a character. And he’s still but you know, I’m different to these guys, I’m not as clever as Matson and I’m not as driven and as ambitious as Rina. I’m much more a product of the lower middle class British, wear boring clothes and be dull. And sometimes it’s nice to see the characters that are more flamboyant. Chris Hallam was a good friend of mine, sadly dead now. So he went and did a lot of coaching and finished but he was always a nice antidote to dull British-ness.

Peter:

You think—I’m picking up on that because you think that the culture because again, you’ve come across many people from all over the world, you’ve mentioned a couple of people, how influential is a person’s culture and their environment from their own country and their own environment, is it important to how they succeed in sport?

PC:

I don’t think that makes a great deal of difference to be honest. I think that the way you talk about it might change but I think the—some things go on and on. I mean, the Brits love beating the Aussies because they’re such bad losers and the Aussies love sticking it to the Brits and that’s a traditional rivalry and we like to give people—we like to make stereotypes. You know, we want the French to be stylish and sometimes they are and you imagine—how much of this is in our heads, I don’t know, you want the Germans to be businesslike but have no sense of humor but I think none of it’s really true, it’s just the stereotypes we like to—we just have fun with, I guess.

Peter:

Where would you like to see—I don’t know if you have but I imagine you’ve seen progress obviously I guess and there’s so much of it over however many years. What do you think it might look like in another 20 years’ time? Do you think the Paralympics Games will still exist and people will still pretty much be doing the same thing but just with more advanced technology or techniques or whatever?

PC:

I think the Paralympics will certainly exist because it’s—television stations can make money out of doing it, then they’ll do it and I think it was—certainly the London Paralympics was a fantastic success. So people like to—they like tales of overcoming hardship and heroism and all of these things and there’s still plenty of people with disabilities and we start wars and make more of them and the Paralympics have certainly widened to accommodate lots of different disabilities now. I come from a very narrow—wheelchair racing and wheelchair rugby were my two sports and so that’s really the stuff I know about and it’s wheelchair sport that our business is concerned with. But outside of that, there’s—you know, goodness me, equestrianism which is amateur is the horse, amateur is the rider, we never know, do we? And then they do all of the other stuff, the winter sport, sport is entertainment—

Peter:

In the end, does it really matter in the end if it’s entertainment?

PC:

If it’s how much is amateur, the horse or the rider?

Peter:

Does it matter if it’s entertainment?

PC:

Not really, no. It’s like going to work, it’s like what you do from—you get up in the morning and do something. So now people get up in the morning and they’re devoted to their sports and at the end of the day, they get old and decrepit and miserable and get like—turn into me – which is how I feel. You got me on a bad day.

Peter:

A bit crook at the moment. There was one little thing you mentioned there that I might ask you about, you said they like tales of hardship and the press love the tales of overcoming hardships. Do you think that’s a good message, really, for—

PC:

Not really. I know there is a radio program that has been put out by a guy called Peter White who you will probably know about, he’s blind actually and he does some disability broadcasting for the BBC called—and he does a little bit of the broadcasting called No Triumph No Tragedy which is probably maybe what disabled sport is kind of—you know it’s not really a triumph and it’s not really a tragedy. But you know, any more in his career is a triumph over a tragedy, you admire the man for what he’s done. And you know, you want it—it’s—do you know – you know, we’re all making a living and we’re all getting through life. I don’t know, I don’t understand the first thing about disability, all I know is I’ve got one and I don’t bloody well like it. And I don’t know if I was to have my life again, I’d skip that bit. So I’m not someone who looks on it as—

Peter:

You wouldn’t skip the sports bit. The sports bit, then.

PC:

Well I was playing sport before my injury and I would be playing sport still now but I would have a bad back and would be complaining about golf balls not dropping in the holes as I wanted them to be. But I would rather not have to cope with some of the things that the disability gives you. So if I’ve got to have a disability, I wouldn’t have this one, I’d have something a little bit—I’d be a little bit—I’d be an amputee because we have a hierarchy of the—it’s like the Monty Python, I think. I look up to him and he looks up to me so we’re all—we get together, the Paralympics family, we never talk to each other.

Peter:

So there’s a hierarchy even in the Paralympics family?

PC:

Well I think it’s probably just those—when you’re at the bottom, I think you notice it.

Peter:

I remember, Peter, just on that point, a well-known Paralympic athlete now retired when they were thinking about introducing people with learning disabilities into the Paralympics said there is no way I’m marching round the arena in the opening ceremony with learning disabled people wearing the same uniform. I mean, that—I was astonished when I heard that. So it’s kind of a pecking order thing and somehow the efforts of the people who were the pioneers in developing disability sport would be diluted by introducing learning disabled people.

PC:

I tell you, I was most—I’m searching for the word, I can’t really find it but not apprehensive but putting the learning disabled into the Paralympics was a real tricky one because you know, you don’t—it’s not a disability which is very easy to quantify. And we were doing stuff which was adapted physical activity. Now if you have a learning disability, you’re just doing the physical activity, you don’t need any adaptations, you don’t need anything different, you don’t need a wheelchair to use it or anything else. So it was—you know and then of course in the end it was all brought into this repute by the basketball team but I think there is—whether there was a—there would always be a place for sports somewhere for learning disabled but whether they wanted to be in the Paralympics or not, I don’t know.

Peter:

I think it was partly for correctness sort of.

PC:

I think empire building, people wanted to have a—they wanted the Paralympics to be as big and as broad as it could be and let’s have everyone together. And I think well, okay.

Ken:

I thought the best way that it was done was in 92, they had the Paralympics in Barcelona and then about a week after the Barcelona Paralympics finished, they had an event completely for the people who had learning disabilities called the Paralympiada and that was held in Madrid and I thought they should have kept going with that because I know it was parallel but it did offer far, far more opportunities for people with learning disabilities because obviously in the Paralympics, there’s only a few events and I realize it’s a low number but in the Paralympiada, there was thousands of athletes. And I think they should have kept that going but it only happened that one time.

PC:

Well yeah. The Paralympics may have to get—when it becomes too expensive for countries to stage, I think there will be a bit of a backlash and people will be saying hey, we need to cut down on this. And already they cut down on the number of events and the number of people who miss out are often those people who are the greatest of the highest of the disabilities, the greatest disability because it’s—you know, if you want to make it entertainment, then you want to see stuff that people are entertained by, which is high class performance, not watching people go very, very slowly or not jumping very high. It’s difficult, then, to make it—we look at Mo Farrah coming eighth in the marathon and think, bloody hell, what’s the matter with Mo Farrah, he should give up marathons and you know, if he can only come in eighth. So you know, it’s—you win or if you don’t, you don’t.

Ken:

Just a point you made there reminds me, we had the conversation a few weeks ago about the north-south divide, the technology gap between the countries that are well off and those that are struggling but also in the events, it’s this whole idea of does the Paralympics movement develop itself—and I have personal contact with a man from Fiji who was the second best single leg amputee high jumper in the world and his event was cut from the Beijing games and he wasn’t—whether it was Beijing or not. Anyway, he just had to—had trained for years and reach that second best. They said there weren’t enough competitors so it was cut, so then he had to wait. They reinstated it for London and I was lucky to be in the stadium when he won the gold medal and first person from Fiji ever had won a gold medal in the Olympics or the Paralympics. But I just wonder, that’s the thing about the technology – the haves and the have-nots and access to this equipment, prosthetic limbs and all that and there’s other countries—is there an answer to that?

PC:

The same applies in—right across all sport, you can apply that because maybe I’m not going to get—you know, you’re not going to get many good swimmers and pole vaulters coming out of Africa for a bit, you know, because, well, the best athletes, the best footballers, pretty soon the Europeans get them and they change nationalities, don’t they? So you can be a good Somali athlete and then you can become British or another western European one in the university system and you know, the world has got smaller, hasn’t it?

Ken:

Well I guess a lot of the top Kenyan athletes are now Qatari.

PC:

Yeah. Sport’s just—it’s a global industry isn’t it?

Peter:

Okay well thanks very much, I appreciate it. I think we had a great podcast, you’re an absolute natural.