Ben Rushgrove is 24. He has cerebral palsy and shortly after he was diagnosed as a baby, his parents were told there was a chance Ben might not learn to walk. You could be forgiven for saying the rest is history.
He won a bronze medal in the T36 200m at the London Paralympics this year, with a personal best time of 24.83. In Beijing before that, he won silver in the 100m and broke the then-world record for the 200m sprint – with many of the reports from the time saying he did it all with a broken bone in his foot.
I didn’t ask him to confirm this. Fact as it probably is, Ben’s medal-winning feet (broken or not) are firmly on the ground when it comes to his achievements.
“My ultimate goal will never change,” he tells me, when I ask about his hopes for Rio 2016. “It has always been just to do my very best.” Reading up on Ben’s journey to the Paralympic podium, I learn about the drive behind his athletic spirit. It could be, as written in his London 2012 profile, because he has: “a persistent fear that others will think I am not giving 100%” Or, perhaps, as his Team Bath profile reads, because he feels: “hugely privileged to have had the opportunities I’ve had to pursue my dreams and see what comes of them.”
By this, I know he means the fortune of being spotted as a running talent and being able to develop his performance throughout his teenage years, but it also indicates a gratitude for the platform which now exists for disabled sport.
For Ben, the beginning of the real audience for Paralympics was Beijing. “It seems to me that the games in 2008 were the first year that we got the media coverage that we were hoping for. The events were fully attended. There was a need to cover it more in the press and a heightened interest because London was next.”
He tells me that in the final training sessions at the Paralympics stadium this year, first-time competitors were overwhelmed with the atmosphere when the stands were only half-full. But Ben knew to expect a lot more by the time the official races came round.
He clearly was not mistaken. Three weeks before the Paralympics opened, ticket sales hit a record-breaking high of 2.1 million.
Seb Coe, a familiar face in the stadium as Chairman of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG), said at the time: “We are absolutely delighted with how the British public has responses so far to tickets for the Paralympic Games. The Olympic Games have shown us that the UK has taken the Games to their heart. I look forward to even more people getting the chance to join in and to form memories that will last a lifetime.”
Public attitudes have been shifted by the high-profile performances of London 2012. For the athletes, this is a powerful double-edged sword. Ben explains: “The rest of the world is really picking up their game in terms of Paralympic sport now – competition is only going to get tougher. Socially, everyone saw how successful London 2012 was and how society was really behind it – the world will step up again to respond to that.”
A natural advocate of disabled sport, I wanted to ask Ben about his views on Oscar Pistorius’ iconic competing in the able bodied race. I was surprised at first to hear him confirm that he felt the sporting stages should remain separate.
Why? He wrote for the Guardian: “In the wider context I do believe that blades give you an unfair advantage over able-bodied runners.”
Talking strictly of the sporting world, he added another thought which – like it or not – was certainly whispered at the time: “Oscar has put Paralympics on the map, no question about that. And this may not be PC, but whether he likes it or not perhaps he should just acknowledge that he’s disabled.”
Now, I sensed that this opinion may appear particularly harsh or controversial in writing. But speaking to Ben about it from an athlete’s perspective, hearing no malice, just a reasoned voice thickened with the charming sound of someone who is always seconds away from laughing, I was willing to trust an insider’s opinion. We both agree it was an iconic moment of London 2012, but I am not in a position to judge its implications on any aspect other than social.
That is my interest talking to Ben, now, ahead of his appearance at BU’s events for Disability History Month. The only break he had after the Paralympics was for a stint of backpacking in Vietnam and Cambodia – “I’m not really the beach holiday type!” he jokes – and now, he takes time out of his strict regime in preparation for the World Championships in Leon, France, next year to travel around the country keeping the message of the London games alive. A little debate won’t scare him off.
“I’m only asking people to come with open minds, willing to challenge their own pre-conceptions” Ben said. Before you assume that London 2012 did all the perception-changing society could ask for, consider that it is not just the attitudes of the on-lookers which are still relevant.
Hearing from people like Ben can be a massive inspiration for other disabled young people and aspiring athletes to know that they are not part of an era which will hold them back.
“The best response to a talk I have given was from the mother of a boy who’d been in the audience. I don’t know what his disability was, but she wrote a letter to tell me he had been really shy and introvert before, but came home that day really inspired. He suddenly felt that he had a great deal to offer to the world and could become confident because of that.
“That is the goal of these talks, to make a little bit of difference to everyone. If we do that, they will add up to a huge change in perceptions.
“The day we realise we can’t do anything more to help, is either the day we reach eutopia – which I don’t think we are anywhere close to – or the day we’ve become ignorant. There is always something more we can do to better our position.”