TV

Ade Adepitan: "My dad banned me from watching disability sport on TV"

Paralympian Ade Adepitan on being a cocky kid, his parents facing racism in the UK - and why British sport is held back

At 16 I was planning the great escape. I was living at home with my parents but I told my dad I needed to become a wheelchair basketball player and he wasn’t happy with that. He thought I should become a doctor or a lawyer or something boring like that. So I thought, the only way I’m going to get to do what I want to do is leave home. So I did.

I did have concerns beyond basketball. I was desperate to get a pair of Pepe jeans with braces from a shop in Oxford Street called Mash. And I would have loved to have been popular with the ladies but if I’m honest I think I was a bit shy. When I was 12 I went to a party and snogged a girl who was 14. I thought, oh my God, she’s amazing, I’m in love. Five minutes later she snogged someone else and I was heartbroken. I just sat there in tears, listening to Michael Jackson – She’s Out of My Life.

Ade Adepitan carries the Olympic torch ahead of London 2012

I was a cocky, mouthy, little shit. Me today, multiplied by 10. But I was very, very focused. I still get that feeling now and again; that burning passion and ambition to be successful and prove to everyone how good I was. It kept me up at night, I wanted it so badly. I am a bit envious of that kid now, the innocent, carefree attitude I had, without any worries about the future. Yeah, I was naïve but it was brilliant. And I think it was infectious. It’s why I attracted so many people who wanted to be around me and help me.

I didn’t start using a wheelchair until I was 13. [Ade lost the use of his left leg after contracting polio as a baby.] Before that I walked on callipers. But I found out it was much faster to have my mates wheel me around in a shopping trolley. One night I was spotted speeding about by these physiotherapists who had this idea of me playing wheelchair basketball. They asked me to come to Stoke Mandeville. I was very reluctant at first but then I saw some Team GB guys and I was blown away by how good they were, how athletic. And that was it, I was hooked on wheelchair basketball.

I had my mind set on basketball and I just couldn’t understand why my parents wouldn’t support me.

My basketball ambitions did make it very, very tense at home. My dad banned me from watching any disability sport on TV. I was quite upset about that. At the time I had my mind set on basketball and I just couldn’t understand why my parents wouldn’t support me. I thought they were crazy. I suppose I was a bit of a dreamer but thinking about it now, I probably got that from them! They had the foresight, the belief, the determination to bring me to the UK [from Nigeria] and maybe if they’d have told people their plans 10 years before we came out, people would’ve thought they were bonkers.

If I could go back, I’d be more understanding about where my dad was coming from. He was frustrated with the way things had gone for him in the UK. It wasn’t because he wasn’t good enough or he didn’t work hard enough – my parents had taken their education very seriously and were very well educated. But my dad was turned down for job after job and a big part of it was the colour of his skin. It was so sad for me to see, my parents going through pain and trying to hide it from me. I understand now why they were so desperate for me to do well. They thought, if we’re not able to do it, Ade must definitely do it. So it must have been heartbreaking for them to hear me say, I want to be a wheelchair basketball player.

I understand now that coming to the UK was a real shock to the system for both my parents. I don’t think people totally understand this but when you come from a Commonwealth country you feel a real affinity and connection with the UK. My parents always talked about the Queen and Great Britain, and how it was the second home. We all thought we were part of a big family. So arriving, and realising that actually the UK was still coming to terms with race and the influx of migrants… Around then Enoch Powell made his Rivers of Blood speech, the skinheads were out in the streets. It was tough.

I don’t think people understand this but when you come from a Commonwealth country you feel a real connection with the UK.

There was a sea change in relationships at home in 2000, when I went to the Sydney Paralympics. At that time my dad and I were speaking tentatively when I came home for Sunday dinner. My mum spoke to me more ’cause she missed me a lot. One weekend I told them I was going to be away for a while. Then it just so happened my dad saw me playing on TV. I think that’s when he got it. He realised what I was trying to achieve. And it was a really emotional moment when I came back – I got out of the taxi and he gave me a hug. And over the next six years we rebuilt our relationship.

If I told my 16-year-old self, you’re going to win a Paralympic medal, you’re going to be captain of the GB team, you’re going to present live TV – my brain would have exploded. I’ve always felt I was going to do something special. I’ve always had that optimism. But even now, I’m quite amazed at how well it’s gone.

If I could go back and do anything differently, I’d stick more to my beliefs as a basketball player. It took me 15 years to get into the national team and I almost gave up. Any time I did stuff that showed my natural aggressive, attacking way of playing, it was taken as me trying to be flash. In the end I compromised to get into the team but I lost a bit of my freedom, my fearlessness. Even after I was established in the team, I don’t think I was ever able to play the way I wanted. It’s a very British thing, the idea of the show pony. I think it’s sometimes used to stop people being creative. I think you need to let people express themselves, let themselves go. That’s why we struggle in football. We stifle creative people. A Ronaldo or a Messi wouldn’t have succeeded in the England team. Someone would have hacked them down or told them they were too selfish.

If I could go back to any time in my life, it would be 2012. It was incredible. I was hosting the Paralympics, primetime TV, on Channel 4 with Clare Balding, a national treasure. The opening ceremony was so brilliant – I was there watching, sitting next to Stephen Hawking. Fantastic. Then I presented the Paralympic opening ceremony with Jon Snow. That whole year, actually, was unbelievable.

Ade Adepitan presents New York: America’s Busiest City on BBC Two for three nights, later this month. He will present Channel 4’s coverage of the Paralympic Games, live from Rio, from September 7

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