Anita Choudhrie, Founder of Path to Success, explores how we can empower female athletes through access to disability sport in uncertain times
The global health crisis has presented challenges for every aspect of daily life. Its negative impact has extended to the female athletes who had spent the last four years preparing to compete in the now postponed Tokyo Paralympic games, and the organizations which support these athletes.
Although the 2012 London Paralympic Games are viewed as a defining moment for disability sport in the UK, sparking an attitudinal change and bolstering enthusiasm for it to be more widely supported, eight years on, it is difficult to gauge how clear-cut the subsequent improvements have been.
Of England’s population of 53 million, 18.4 million, or almost 35%, have a long-standing disability or illness, and almost 20% of this group, one in five people, have a long-standing limiting disability.
Women with disabilities are among the highest-risk groups for not partaking in physically-active hobbies, and participation in disability sport has fallen by 10% since the London 2012 Paralympics. For young women, the associated health risks of long-term inactivity could have irreversible effects on their quality of life.
There are still not enough athletic facilities that are fully accessible, and the pandemic has imposed further restrictions on training spaces and sessions with trainers and coaches. There is much work to be done in encouraging more disabled people across the UK to remain active.
I initiated to the appeal at my charity, Path to Success, to address these issues and empower women in disability sport. We have made it our mission to offer hope to the forgotten female stars with their eyes set on competing at the Paralympic games but lacking the resources to do so. I firmly believe that by raising the profile of female role models and shining a light on barriers to access across the UK, we can inspire the next generation of female Paralympic athletes.
Path to Tokyo
Many athletes who are on their way to Tokyo and part of our Path to Tokyo campaign, which supports fourteen athletes across four major disability sports: para badminton, wheelchair tennis, para powerlifting and wheelchair basketball, are from non-athletic backgrounds.
For example, Para Badminton champion Mary Wilson was an army psychiatric nurse who once survived an attack on her life by Taliban fighters who had infiltrated her camp. Following a devastating diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis which required her to end her career in the military, she decided to pick up a racket and pour her potential into sport. She has gone on to compete in the Inaugural Invictus Games as the only female captain and she has now broken into the top six in the world for Para Badminton.
Lucy Shuker has won two Paralympics bronze medals in wheelchair Tennis and is looking to finally go all way in Tokyo. Lucy was in a motorbike accident after studying at university and the severity of her spinal injuries mean she is the most disabled woman on tour. A Wimbledon finalist, Lucy has experienced first-hand the positive role sport can play in overcoming adversity. She has demonstrated phenomenal determination and skill to continue to compete.
These women have overcome great challenges and they could not have reached where they are now without embracing sport and an active lifestyle. Sport imposes several positive influences on wellbeing but requires significant financial investment.
The annual cost for a female athlete to compete at Paralympic level can be as much as £40,000, to cover training, tournament entry fees and travel, specialized equipment, and specialist physical therapy.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations forecasted the sector would lose £4.6 billion. Although the Chancellor’s announcement of a £750m package to keep charities afloat provided hope, it does not cover the small hardworking sport charities like Path to Success.
We aim to be at the forefront of supporting Paralympians, but without support from the government, celebrity ambassadors or corporations behind us, our fundraising activity and events are crucial. The inability to host them this year is an obstacle imposed by the Coronavirus we are struggling to navigate.
2021 Paralympic games
The postponement of the Paralympic games to 2021 adds an additional year of preparation for the athletes which comes with several expenses and has left many athletes requiring additional support. Many medal hopefuls who now have their eyes on bringing one home for Great Britain in 2021 are still scrambling to find the funding necessary to compete.
Path to Success has already lost more than £50,000 with the cancellation of our annual indoor corporate wheelchair basketball tournament. We are now depending largely on the generosity of individuals to help meet our £200,000 annual budget. I would encourage all leaders of not-for-profit organizations to use this time to reflect on your network and the community you have built with your causes to humbly ask for support in this time of need. It has been inspiring to see the loyalty of friends and supporters to the Path to Success cause.
We have also leveraged the power of technology by launching an online initiative on easyfundraising, AmazonSmile and joined the nation in the 2.6 Challenge. Although these do not generate enough to fully fund an athlete, we have also taken on 40% salary reduction, applied for grants and have thankfully been the recipient of Sports England’s Community Emergency Funding which will aid our costs through July.
Along with virtual initiatives and grants, now is also a good time to review fund allocation. To support the athletes as much as possible in these uncertain times, we have redirected funding and given them the option on when they want to utilise their disbursements. We believe they know best, and this has allowed them to extend the use of our support to suit their new training plans as they aim to compete next year.
The athletes work diligently to ensure they are at their peak performance for the Paralympic competitions, so it’s crucial that we maintain the ability to fund their training and emphasise the opportunities and feelings of empowerment that sport can offer, using these as a springboard to effect positive change.
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