Alan Hubbard: On why he is pleased the Panathlon is bouncing back

Tuesday, 23 February 2010
Ever heard of the Panathlon? No, not the pentathlon. The Greeks had a word for it – they usually did for most things. It means a group of sporting disciplines.

The Panathlon was the brainchild of the late sports publicist Mark Barker, which featured 10 activities specially adapted for schools. These included chess and orienteering as well as more orthodox pursuits like athletics, badminton, cycling, darts and five- a-side football.

It was believed to be the first such project of its kind in the world, a sort of mini-Olympics for 250,000 kids  - both able-bodied and disabled - in inner-city areas, and highly successful it was too for a decade, from 1995-2005 until it ran out of sponsorship.

A plea for help from the Government was kicked into touch by the then Sports Minister, Richard Caborn, despite an earlier public promise to try and save it, in a game of political football which saw some £6 million prioritised for the introduction of the UK School Games.


The Government and their various sports quangos declined to fund the Panathlon, despite its obvious worthiness, perhaps because it would have distracted from the UK School Games when actually it would have complimented them at a relatively insignificant at cost. This despite a motion signed by numerous MPs of all parties, tabled by the shadow sports minister, Hugh Robertson, and supported by former Labour sports minister Kate Hoey and Lib Dem sports spokesman Don Foster.

Teachers and pupils sent a 5,000-strong petition to the PM, to no avail, no doubt because the UK School Games was perceived as his baby.

The original Panathlon Challenge had been born out of concern for the alarming decline in competitive sport in schools nationwide. The schools were picked because of their lack of sports facilities or a comprehensive sports programme. 

Ashley Iceton, a former Sports Council development officer who helped Barker devise it, believed the event added a vigorous, positive voice to the contentious debate about school sport. "We specifically targeting inner -city schools and kids from deprived areas where sport is not always high on the curriculum," he says. "The idea was to recreate what has been largely lost in school sport - competition and inter-school rivalry. We set out the fixtures, provide the equipment and the officials and all the pupils and staff had to do was turn up."


Alas, the Panathlon Challenge as such went to the wall. Then entire venture seemed a basket case. Panathlon  RIP. But the good news is that thanks to Iceton’s perseverance and hard work and the commercial endeavours of chairman John Hymers, it managed to struggle on with its disability aspect, thanks to a couple of charities, providing opportunities in sport for disabled youngsters, for which it has won a Sportsmatch Award.

The even better news was that it was eventually thrown a lifeline - by football. Funding of £240,000 from the Football Foundation meant that disabled kids in London could be given more sporting opportunities. Even playing an innovative new sport called Powerchair Football, in which the ball is pushed by a bumper fitted across the front of the wheelchair. And now there is more to cheer.

The old-style Panathlon was always backed by Kate Hoey and in her new capacity as London’s sports commissioner she has persuaded Mayor Boris Johnson (pictured) to chip in some £83,000 from his Sports Legacy Plan which will go towards helping disabled athletes, some of them severely so, aged between eight and 18 to compete in the sports of boccia, new age kurling, polybat, football, table cricket and athletics, culminating in an All London final in June.

Iceton says of the Bojo bonus: "Then aim is not to unearth future Paralympians but to get physical activity into kids who otherwise would get no competition."

I have always championed the Panathlon - falling out with Caborn, who suggested the schools should fund it themselves, in the process - because of the tremendous enthusiasm shown by those who participate in times when the grass roots are not always greener.

I thought the Government’s steamroller tactics quite disgraceful, and the one blot on Caborn’s otherwise impressive record tenure as Sports Minister.

So to see it bounce back in this way is truly heartening, and its achievements should not be overlooked in times when we are satiated by big-time sport , its big money and its scandals.

Some of the things the Panathlon has delivered since September include:

 Over 150 teachers and community coaches trained in disability sport

 35,000 worth of new disability sports equipment provided

 £25,000 worth of coaching grants

 25 new special schools involved for the first time – with around 250 new competitors

 Six multi-sports events delivered involving 20 London boroughs and over 500 competitors.

Should there a change of Government the hope is that the Panathlon, which has the endorsement of great Paralympians such as Tanni Grey-Thompson and Danny Crates, could be incorporated in the proposed Tory plans - backed by Dame Kelly Holmes for a new-look "Schools Olympics."

Meantime there should be more encouragement for the Panathlon and Iceton- to keep up the good work. He tells us: “With the mayor’s investment this year, we have doubled the amount of coaching and competitions that around 1,250 disabled young people will be getting. Outside London we are operating this year in Kent, Essex, Liverpool and Plymouth - all for a budget around £250,000.

"I've had enquiries from Yorkshire, Humberside and Cheshire in the last month but we have no charity funds to cope with this demand. However, we could do so much more if we had some more investment - I'm still hoping that a kind hearted commercial partner with an eye on getting some good publicity (like a bank?), may see the benefit in the run up to 2012."

Fingers crossed. Because the continuing survival of the Panathlon is a victory for sport’s Little People over bloody-minded bureaucracy.

Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Olympics.
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