Three GB Paralympic legends were united in their praise for Panathlon as they enjoyed the sight of 200 of London’s finest disabled athletes competing at our showpiece final at the Copper Box Arena.

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson was our special guest at Thursday’s London Multisport Final at the London 2012 venue. The 11-time Paralympic gold medallist dropped by to present medals and trophies, chat to competitors and catch up with a few familiar faces, too.

The former world-beating wheelchair racer, now a politician and TV presenter, was reunited with long-time Panathlon charity Patrons Steve Brown, 2012 GB wheelchair rugby captain, and Liz Johnson, GB Paralympic gold medallist swimmer, as well as Panathlon intern Freya Levy, who has competed internationally in no fewer than three different disciplines.

Baroness Grey-Thompson last attended a Panathlon event several years ago and was thrilled to witness the increase in the charity’s reach, stature and impact.

She said: “It’s amazing to be here. It’s a little while since I came to my last Panathlon event and it has grown so much in that time. It’s such a cool atmosphere.

“Panathlon is amazing because it brings sport and physical activity to a range of people who might not be easily able to access it otherwise. Physical activity is good for physical health and wellbeing, it makes you more independent and confident, and that’s why it’s really important to help change disabled people’s lives.

“The competitive element is really important because life is about winning, losing, finding solutions, being a bit disappointed, finding your way through that and working a bit harder the next time. Competition has got to be done in the right way. Being here and seeing the teamwork, camaraderie, support, the volunteers; it all comes together in exactly the right way.

Panathlon_LDN_Final_mi_064“Panathlon is giving these young people the confidence to have a go, compete in front of their friends and with people watching them, feel really positive about themselves and build team spirit.”

Baroness Grey-Thompson also highlighted the way Panathlon gives disabled young people a platform to compete on their own terms and on a level playing field, as opposed to participating alongside more able-bodied peers in inclusive mainstream settings.

“Disabled people need to be able to choose how they take part,” she commented. “Some of it can be through integration and some of it can be through having separate events like this. The Paralympics, after all, is a separate event and there’s a really good reason for that; so you can compete against other people with a similar impairment, and have that chance to show who is the best.

“Inclusion is an often-misused word – it can look like inclusion but it isn’t really. Just giving a disabled child a stopwatch, making them the umpire or putting them in charge of the rules…sometimes that’s alright, but actually it’s because there’s a lack of imagination. It’s got to be proper inclusion.

“That’s why events like this are amazing. It enables young people to discover what their talent is and gives them an idea of where they really are in terms of disability sport.”

hb1095Steve Brown, who now presents on BBC’s Countryfile and the One Show having retired from wheelchair rugby, shares this view.

“People talk about inclusion and just taking part, but the reason this event is so important to these kids is because they have earned the right to be here. This is a final. That’s huge for their togetherness, self-belief and confidence. It’s about being part of a team and progressing through stages. If they can do it here, it makes them believe they can it in other areas of life.

“I love what Panathlon does and what it stands for. Life is about stepping stones and growth and you need to start off in an environment where you can push yourself, grow and develop, but still feel comfortable and safe. Once they’ve got that confidence, they start to feel that because they enjoyed sport here, they can also enjoy it working and playing with people of different abilities.”

It’s a sentiment with which fellow Panathlon Ambassador Liz Johnson fully concurs. “Panathlon provides an opportunity to be athletes and compete without having to worry about just being included,” she said.

Panathlon_LDN_Final_mi_069“They can focus on their own strengths and priorities and they’re here because they deserve to be here. That’s not to say that mainstream inclusion isn’t important, because I used to compete mainstream, but I always had that element of having to work 10 times harder than everybody else just to be average.

“This gives them the chance to excel, fairly, rather than having a headstart system or a handicap system, or ‘you go from that line and we’ll go from this line’. That gives them a sense of fairness and pride.”

To read more about the London Final, please see here.