CULTURE

Sports for all, able-bodied or otherwise

For someone whose first visit to Greece was only last month, Cherie Booth is becoming quite a regular. Hailed recently by authoritative Forbes magazine as perhaps the most powerful woman in the United Kingdom and one of the 12 most powerful in the world, Booth is the proud of mother of four, a barrister and the wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In Athens to attend the opening ceremony of the 2004 Athens Olympics with her husband last month, Booth returned to Greece this week for the Paralympics. (Booth is also turning into a goodwill ambassador for London’s bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics – the British capital is competing against New York, Paris, Madrid and Moscow.) Honored guest As the guest of honor and keynote speaker at a luncheon organized by the British Hellenic Chamber of Commerce at the Hotel Grande Bretagne yesterday, Booth’s speech marked the first time she was addressing a commercial chamber beyond British boundaries. The lunch was also attended by Natasha Karamanlis, the wife of Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis. Speaking on the occasion of the unfolding Paralympic Games, Booth singled out «the spirit and competitive element which has engulfed Athens since the start of the Olympic Games.» As a patron of Scope (one of the 31 charity associations she is involved in), Booth focused on the importance of physical activity for all – whether disabled or not, whether top athletes or simply people seeking to improve their fitness. «All too often disabled people are not able to enjoy basic pleasures for ridiculous reasons,» said Booth. «Similar problems face disabled people who want to engage in sports.» Earlier this year, Scope launched a campaign titled «Time to Get Equal.» Besides focusing on and highlighting the difficulties disabled people face when it comes to education and employment, Scope’s campaign also throws light on the problems for disabled people regarding enjoying life’s simple pleasures, going out for a drink with friends, for instance, or enjoying sport. In her speech, Booth noted that the world of sport is playing an increasingly important role in societies. «Not only does sport now account for 3 percent of world trade, but it also lies at the center of public interest,» said Booth, citing last year’s rugby World Cup victory as a landmark moment for British sentiment. «Because sport is such a vital element of British culture, it must be made available to all – disabled and non-disabled alike – to participate in and benefit from.» In Britain, Booth said, a number of bodies are working hard to facilitate sport for disabled people through public funds, private fund raising and sponsorship. A few dedicated individuals have also made a difference. The English Federation of Disability Sport, noted Booth, works with a number of partners in creating various opportunities for disabled people around the country, while since 1961, Disability Sport England has succeeded in creating access for increasing numbers of disabled people. Soccer, on the other hand, said Booth, has become an excellent example of «what can be achieved when individuals and organizations have a vision.» In the last five years, the Football Association in England has worked wonders: In 2001, it launched a three-year 6-million-pound program to provide free coaching for teachers at schools for disabled children. It has also been involved in selecting disabled athletes who could progress to the top national teams. «Inclusion is something that disabled people feel strongly about. We are not suggesting that disabled people and non-disabled people compete against each other,» said Booth. «It’s about sports centers and clubs making sure that their facilities are accessible to all. It’s about making sure that needs and expectations of disabled people are taken into account when new facilities are designed and built and when staff are trained.» On the subject of the Paralympics, Booth noted that the idea of disabled athletes competing against each other was born in London, in 1948, though the first official Paralympic Games took place in 1960. At the Sydney Games, the British Paralympic team earned 131 medals. «It is the hard work and dedication of the British Paralympic Association and various other bodies that has enabled these successes to flourish,» said Booth. «We must continue to progress and ensure as much effort as possible is put into providing equal opportunity to all disabled athletes.» Cherie Booth: A life of law and politics Born in Bury, Lancashire, in 1954, Cherie Booth studied law at the London School of Economics and was called to the bar in 1976. She became a Queen’s Counsel in 1995 and today specializes in public, employment and European community law at Matrix Chambers, Grays Inn, London. She is a recorder and bencher of Lincoln’s Inn. Booth married Tony Blair in 1980 and subsequently contested the parliamentary seat of Thanet North for the Labor Party in 1983. Chancellor and honorary fellow of Liverpool John Moores University, Booth is also a governor and honorary fellow of the LSE and the Open University, a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, an honorary fellow of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, a doctor of law (Westminster University) and a fellow of the International Society of Lawyers for Public Service.