If we think back to just a few short weeks ago, London hosted the Para Athletics World Championships, an event which brought back echoes of London 2012 to a proud British public. Crowd attendance proved spectacular - with record levels of fans flocking to the Queen Elizabeth stadium. Its success, and the overwhelming crowd support for all of the competing nations, led to calls from many parties for London to host the games again in 2019. Clearly, Great Britain feels a great affinity and pride for para sports - one which was tangible for competitors and crowds alike. So, given this surge in national pride and support for para sports, why is it still so difficult for British para athletes to raise funding?
Earlier this year the British Wheelchair Rugby team had its funding pulled by UK sport. They have since set up a crowdfunding campaign to raise the £3m needed to keep the team in contention for Tokyo 2020. Since its launch in March, it has achieved only £55,279.
After winning a gold medal in adaptive rowing from London 2012, and since switching sports to cycling, I've seen how some of the issue can come down to focus. Para sports still receive less media attention overall, making para athletes much less visible to the wider public. As a result, sponsorship can be very hard to find. While we support para sport in the UK more than most other nations, and the public have really taken the athletes to their hearts, many brands still tend to select more well-known athletes to promote their products.
The problem can go far beyond lending a name to product promotions, however. One of the biggest stressors discovered in several studies for athletes is keeping bills paid, trying to survive financially. When training full time, the stresses on the body can be massive and sportspeople have to make sure they have the best recovery. This struggle to find support detracts from the athlete's recovery, which can result in gradual declines in performance. So the problem just continues to worsen.
I've been sponsored by Oxfordshire-based ByBox, a global supply chain technology business, for a year now. This sponsorship came about after one of the company founders, Steve Huxter, saw me in a TV documentary, and got in contact to ask if there was anything the company could do to support my training. The business now provides a monthly fund towards training and support. It also helps to make daily travel easier, which is more complicated for para athletes than for enabled sportsmen.
The company also provides business development coaching, advice, and opportunities to learn about a global business based in the UK. Steve says, "The business gets a lot back from this relationship. It's a great match for our company; (David's) determination, drive and resilience are the attributes we encourage. So while we support the training, we get time back in the form of him talking to our employees about motivation. (He's) grateful for the life he has had, and is an incredibly positive person. It also lets company staff feel like they're part of his successes in competitions, and that they support someone who has refused to let setbacks stop him from achieving his dreams."
The relationship runs very much both ways; it's not just about making funding less of an issue. The support lets me focus 100% on my training but also lets me balance my life away from sport. Aside from funding, one of the biggest challenges for sportspeople is the transition into business at the end of the career. This can also be a really stressful time for an athlete. If you can build key skills through a supportive sponsor while also training, you develop self-confidence in your abilities beyond the sport, seeing the transition as less of a threat, more of an opportunity. I love how everyone involved at the business has such a key role to play in delivering on the company's performance. It's a real team effort driven by values very similar to sport. Speaking to the employees is one of my favourite parts, it feels very personal and that I'm definitely part of the team.
Both ByBox and I want to strongly encourage other businesses to back Paralympians and share how the company can get so much more back from the relationship than a name emblazoned on sports equipment. Para athletes in particular can bring so much to a business, well beyond the obvious tale about overcoming adversity. One of the biggest issues to any business is managing change - this is an area where para sportspeople have great experience especially when it comes to thriving in challenging times. I would encourage anyone to see the potential in more British businesses partnering with the country's para athletes as a journey of mutual benefit - one which can inspire a business as a whole, as well as supporting future sporting success on the global stage.