Hannah Cockroft believes para sport has gone backwards since the highs of London 11 years ago, but she says next summer’s Paralympics are the perfect chance to make progress again
Being back at the London Stadium this summer was a bittersweet experience for Hannah Cockroft. On one hand, it represented an opportunity for para athletes to perform at the Diamond League meeting in front of a huge crowd once again and in the arena which helped para sport to leap forward at the London 2012 Paralympics.
One the other, however, it served as a stark reminder that the progress made 11 years ago has stalled in so many ways.
“Post 2012, participation [in para sport] went through the roof, coverage went through the roof, sponsorship improved massively,” says the 30-year-old. “But now, 11 years on, we’re probably back to where we were pre-2012.”
Cockroft had just returned from a successful World Para Athletics Championships in Paris, where she took her tally of world career titles to 14 with victory in the women’s T34 100m and 800m. The impressive emergence of a host of new names among the British team total of 29 medals (10 gold, eight silver and 11 bronze) had also provided reason to be cheerful.
However, the seven-time Paralympic champion can’t hide her concerns about the future. She is insistent that there is an appetite out there to watch the sport, yet the only way to see the World Championships action live was on YouTube. Ticket sales for the 10 days of competition totalled around 150,000 – a reasonable support but not a number to be shouting from the rooftops.
For a number of reasons, para sport’s profile has dropped since the likes of Cockroft, Jonnie Peacock and David Weir became household names through their London exploits, but there is the perfect chance on the horizon to start building it again in the shape of next summer’s Paris Paralympics.
“That’s the one that we know we’re going to get coverage for,” says Cockroft, a seven-time champion. “London 2012 was obviously huge, in Rio  the time difference didn’t really help, in Tokyo the time difference and the pandemic really didn’t help. Paris is the time to refresh all of that.
“Britain are so strong in para sport and the support of it is second to none in Britain. It is fantastic. It’s only across the water, so people can come and support.
“With Tokyo, I think my race was at something like half past two in the morning so it was just my mum in her dressing gown tuning in. This time it can be like prime time coverage.”
And that coverage is crucial.
“It works in a triangle,” adds Cockroft. “We don’t get coverage and, without coverage, no-one knows the event’s on so there are no audiences. Without audiences, the sponsors go: ‘There’s no-one watching, we don’t want to sponsor that event’. Without sponsors, there’s no money to get the coverage and it just keeps going round and round and round.
“It’s such a hard cycle to break because which one breaks first? If we could get live coverage on the telly I think that would solve all the battles. But that’s the hardest one to get.”
Some careful thought around the scheduling of events would also aid the cause.
“It’s time to put the pressure on the organisers to put the prime races [on in the right way],” says Cockroft. “At the World Champs, we had finals in the morning. What good is that? A final is an evening race. Put the big events on at, say, 9pm at night so that people will say: ‘I’m going to stay tuned in to watch that’.
“We need to be so clever about our scheduling. We need to schedule new faces either side of [the big events]. So the viewers will see someone like [T20 1500m world champion] Ben Sandilands win a gold medal and people might think: ‘I’ve never heard of him but, oh my god, we’ve got a Paralympic champion!’. Sandwich the names that people know with the new people that are going to come and replace us eventually. We need to think cleverly.
“I really believe that we’re going to get big crowds in Paris, they’re selling it really well, but it’s an ongoing fight.”
Cockroft laughs at the notion of one day going into sports governance but you will struggle to find a stronger advocate for her sport and she most certainly keeping an eye on what happens beyond her competitive career.
“We had so many young faces step up and take that title [at the World Championships in Paris] and it was so exciting to see. It’s a strange position to be in because they come to me for advice and I’m like: ‘Oh, I don’t feel like I know anything yet. I’m still so new to this game’, but I’m really not.
“Fabienne André, who won the bronze in my 100m, said to me: ‘I watched you at London 2012 and that’s what made me start’ and then you sit there thinking ‘Am I really that old?’ But it’s exciting. It’s exciting that they are getting an opportunity to compete, they are getting on those stages and it just shows that the London legacy is still there. It just needs revamping, it just needs a refresh.
“It inspired the people that needed inspiring 11 years ago but now we’re 11 years on and there are 11-year-olds being told they can’t do sport so we need to start again.”
» This feature first appeared in the August issue of AW magazine. Subscribe today and get your first three months for just £24.99 here