“What I’ve always wanted is for people to watch the Paralympics and think, ‘I’d love to do that. I’d love to be that person.’” So says Ade Adepitan, one of the faces – certainly the one with the biggest smile – of Channel 4’s coverage of the Rio Paralympics.
The fact that so many people will watch the Paralympics and think ‘I’d like to do that’ is due to the popularity of the 2012 London Paralympics, but also Adepitan’s very visible success. Struck down by illness as a child and brought up in poverty in London’s East End, the bronze medal-winning wheelchair basketball player has overcome disability to become one of our most recognisable sportsmen and commentators. Along the way he has hugely increased the profile of Paralympian sport.
Not that Adepitan, as self-effacing as he is accomplished, likes to take credit. “I wouldn’t put much of it down to my efforts,” the 43-year-old says, even though the 2009 BBC ident he filmed with two other athletes in wheelchairs reached millions of viewers. Instead he credits Channel 4’s 2012 Paralympics trailer – which he didn’t star in – as the real turning point in public perception of Paralympians.
“It was the first Superhumans trail,” says Adepitan. “The one with the Public Enemy music. I just thought, ‘Wow, forget about all the other stuff about disability, the messages we’re trying to get across, this just looks cool.’”
Channel 4’s 2012 Meet the Superhumans trailer
And that’s the thing about the Paralympics, says Adepitan – they have become very cool. “I’ve seen our sport go from one man and his dog watching you to tens of thousands of people watching you,” he says. “When I started a lot of people looked at our sports as forms of recreation and rehabilitation. They didn’t look at us as elite-level athletes. I said, ‘One day people will respect us, they will understand that what we do is every bit as important and hard as any able-bodied athlete.’ Now it’s actually happening it can be overwhelming. When someone asks for my autograph it blows my mind.”
But can Rio, with all its financial problems, match the achievements of 2012? “London brought back the pride to the UK,” he says. “We looked at our identity, we thought about who we were as a country and what it means to be British. You’re not going to get that in Rio; this is Brazil’s Games, so look at it as a good friend who is having an amazing party. We’ve been invited and they really want us to be there.”
At Rio 4,000 athletes will compete in 22 sports, ranging from archery through powerlifting to wheelchair tennis. It will be Channel 4’s biggest-ever foreign live broadcast, delivering 700 hours of Paralympic coverage over Channel 4, All4 and 4seven. Joining Adepitan on hosting duty is Clare Balding, fresh from fronting the BBC’s Olympics coverage; Adam Hills, host of the Channel 4 comedy panel show The Last Leg; and Breaking Bad actor RJ Mitte, who has cerebral palsy. “I wouldn’t say it’s stressful,” says Adepitan, “but it’s very, very intense.”
Breaking Bad star RJ Mitte
Adepitan should be able to handle it though – he picked up a Bafta for Channel 4’s 2012 Games coverage and he’s now an established documentary-maker. His first television sport memory is the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles when he was 11. “My parents bought a black-and-white TV, and you had to bang it to get a picture. LA was the first showbiz Olympics; they had a man in a rocket suit and breakdancers. I remember Carl Lewis winning his gold medals, Daley Thompson whistling on the podium, and Seb Coe doing that amazing celebration. I just looked at it all and thought, ‘I want to be like them.’”
It was an unlikely ambition. His family of six were squeezed into a Plaistow council flat, they had little money and Ade had lost the use of his right leg when he was 15 months old and caught a rare form of polio in Nigeria. It was in part to get treatment for their son that the family came to London when he was three. “I was a disabled black kid, my parents kept me at home because they thought I’d be bullied,” he says of his childhood, much of which he spent in callipers. “I left school with three GCSEs but I believed that I was going to be a star by playing Paralympic wheelchair basketball.”
The teenage Adepitan wasn’t easily thwarted; he remembers climbing out of a window at night to go raving. “I was on my crutches, surrounded by thousands of strangers, people that I’d never met before, and no one batted an eyelid at the fact that I had a disability.”
Adepitan made the Team GB basketball squad that came fourth in the Sydney 2000 Games. Then, at the 2004 Athens Games, he won bronze. A year later he won gold at the Paralympic World Cup and was awarded an MBE. “When we went to Buckingham Palace my mum told me that when she was a kid, there was a royal visit to Nigeria and she’d wanted to go to Lagos and see the Queen. Her mum had said, ‘We can’t afford it, you can’t go.’ And now here she was at Buckingham Palace.”
Athens Paralympics 2004
It’s a remarkable journey for the man and his family, but does Adepitan’s example, and a Paralympian culture of epic striving, set unfair targets for wheelchair users and others? One disabled woman recently criticised the “Yes I can” message of Channel 4’s 2016 Superhumans trailer, telling The Guardian, “Actually, there are some things I cannot do.”
“No,” says Adepitan, “the trailer is saying if there’s something that you really want to do, that you’re passionate about, and you believe in it, then you can do it. The Paralympics and the Olympics are the shop window; it’s not what we are expecting everybody to be able to do, but it’s the advertisement, it’s the thing that says, ‘Look, this is what you can aspire to be like. This is what sport can do for you.’ It’s a way to get that message out to a mass audience. But we’re not expecting everyone to be Usain Bolt! I’m never going to be a high jumper, there are certain physical barriers, but there are other things that I can do.
“And there are way more opportunities now than when I was growing up, even if you’re black with a disability. There is a lot more hope – you don’t have to be a crazy, mad dreamer like I was.”
The Paralympics Opening Ceremony is on Channel 4 at 8pm on Wednesday 7 September