By Tom Degun

Tom_Degun_head_and_shouldersIt is no exaggeration to say that when Tim Hollingsworth was officially announced as the chief executive of the British Paralympic Association (BPA) on May 5 this year, it was the most significant appointment in the history of Paralympic sport in the United Kingdom.

The announcement in May followed a rather bizarre chain of events that saw the former occupant of the role - Phil Lane - suddenly quit with immediate effect on February 28, 2011 after 10 years in charge of the organisation.

The shock resignation of Lane was a major blow after he had been Chef de Mission of Britain's Paralympic team at the last four Paralympic Games, led them to second-placed finishes in the medal tables at both Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 and overseen the unprecedented growth of disabiltiy sport in the UK over the last decade.

But perhaps the biggest spanner in the works was the timing move, coming as it did just 18 months ahead of the London 2012 Paralympics, with the Opening Ceremony set for August 29 next year.

If the situation at the BPA was not quite at the critical threat level, it was certainly bordering on severe as no one at the organisation was under any illusion of how important the 2012 Paralympics are to disability sport in Britain nor how crucial it is for them to have a fully competent chief executive to spearhead their plans.

The search began for the person to succeed Lane in March 2011 and just under two months later Hollingsworth was named as the man.

The move was undoubtedly an astute one because, with little time to get up to speed, the BPA required an individual with a clear knowledge of the British sporting landscape.

Hollingsworth has that in abundance.

He had been chief operating officer at UK Sport since September 2010 having previously been director of policy and communications at the UK's high performance sports agency for the five preceding years.

Hollingsworth is widely respected and largely credited as being the man behind the majority of UK Sport's good work in recent times.

It was therefore no surprise that his appointment to the BPA top job was quickly followed by glowing words from the Sport and Olympics Minister Hugh Robertson, the London 2012 chief executive Paul Deighton and the President of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Sir Philip Craven.

UK Sport's loss appears the BPA's gain even though the man of the moment himself (pictured below centre with Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and sprinter Ben Rushgove) - who appears completely unflappable from the outside - is under no illusions about how huge the task ahead will be.

"I'm very aware of the responsibility on my shoulders and I would therefore be lying if I said I wasn't a little nervous about the challenge I've got here," the likeable Hollingsworth admitted as we sat down together in the BPA's impressive headquarters in Charlotte Street in central London, a building they share with the British Olympic Association (BOA).

"But I would honestly say that my principle feeling and principle emotion is excitement.

"I recognised when I took this job - from the knowledge of Paralympic sport I had before I joined - what a great moment in time this was for the BPA.

"But I didn't perhaps appreciate what even the last few weeks have shown me which is exactly how lucky and privileged I am to be in the position I'm now in going into London 2012.

"It is a massive challenge though because my own focus has got to be not only on the BPA and the great team we have here but also on next year because regardless I what I think, the judgment will come on how ParalympicsGB compete in London.

"The cost of failure would be huge so I'll have to do everything I can to ensure we are successful.

"But there is such an opportunity with London 2012 that I have to think about it in both a hard-nosed way from a financial and commercial point of view and as a way to change attitudes across the UK towards Paralympic athletes."

It is clear then that Hollingsworth is a man who knows what is at stake at London 2012 but perhaps the concern should be after the Paralympic Games in the English capital. A country that made the mistake of not thinking ahead was Australia at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games.

The hosts topped the medal table at their own Paralympic Games and looked untouchable but they have since fallen from those lofty heights as they plummeted to fifth at both the Athens 2004 Paralympics and Beijing 2008 Games.

The latest predictions suggest they could fall still further down the medal table at London 2012 - a situation largely attributed to a lack of future planning during Sydney 2000 itself.

The Australian Paralympic Committee (APC) chief executive Jason Hellwig is always quick to remind me when we speak that Britain must start focusing on life beyond London 2012 right away but Hollingsworth showed me he was already one step ahead.

"Everything I say will be obviously about London 2012 but then crucially about the bit beyond," said Hollingsworth in his usual calm but assured manner.

"What happens with Paralympic sport in this country as a result of London 2012 is essentially the most exciting but most important part of all this.

"I don't think for one moment that all of our goals will be achieved next year by any stretch but what I want is for us to be in a great position to keep moving forward and not to stagnate or move backwards."

Perhaps the good thing about Lane resigning when he did is that it gave the BPA the chance to attract the best possible candidate because leading the BPA through the London 2012 Paralympics is rather large an incentive for anyone.

The problem was that it could be London then out for the new chief executive and I ask Hollingsworth if he plans on being around for a while.

"One the one hand, that is not my decision and not my call," Hollingsworth smiled.

"But from my own perception, I have no doubt that I want to see the job extend well beyond where we are at currently.

"To say that I was just here for London would be completely missing the opportunity.

"The opportunity is to be part of the Paralympic journey and part of the Paralympic Movement beyond London so I see London as the start of my career in this environment - not the end - and I see London as a springboard for the future.

"So as long as it is my decision and not someone else's, I intend to be here for the long-haul.

"And from a performance point of view, I know that we can continue to maintain our high standards on the field of play.

"Going back into my former life at UK Sport, I know very well that with lottery funding coming to the fore as a result of the settlement that was received in 2010 that the funding will be there for the athletes' post 2012.

"There will obviously be some drop off but only 10 to 15 per cent which is great considering where we could have been.

"So we can be optimistic as performances will continue to be rewarded with funding."

It is clear that given Hollingsworth's background at UK Sport, he will not be caught out on questions over funding.

However, he joins the Paralympic Movement with an altogether more complex issue hovering - that of South African Oscar Pistorius and his highly controversial prosthetic legs that supposedly give him an advantage over able-bodied athletes.

There has been concern over the issue from high profile figures, including Britain's 11-time Paralympic champion Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson who said Pistorius' events should be banned from the Paralympics so that the Games does not become a B-standard event to the Olympics.

I thought I'd I see how the new chief executive would respond to such an issue.

"Someone of Tanni's great experience and stature, with her huge knowledge, should certainly be listened to and she clearly made a valid point that shows that this is not a black and white issue by any stretch of the imagination," said Hollingsworth slowly.

"But the view that I have and the BPA have is that Oscar as an individual is not harming the Paralympic Movement but rather supporting it.

"He has not only committed himself to the Paralympics but by competing the way he is, he is demonstrating the world class nature of Paralympic sport.

"He is a figurehead for the Paralympic Movement and just as the Olympics has no bigger star than Usain Bolt, we have our Usain Bolt in Oscar Pistorius and that is fantastic.

"And he won't overshadow the British athletes.

"On the contrary, he is bringing attention to the Paralympic Movement and therefore to British Paralympians and that can only be a good thing."

With that, our time is up and we bid each other farewell.

Our conversation came shortly after Hollingsworth made his first major media outing in his new role alongside IPC President Sir Philip in a press conference that was certainly the most open I have seen from the organisation in several years of covering the BPA.

It was barely 24 hours later that I was on the phone to Sir Philip and Tim's assured performance at the media event came up in our conversation.

"Tim was great," the IPC President told me.

"I love how he wants to be much more open with the media and more transparent and I think he will be a breath of fresh of air for the BPA.

"I'm really impressed with him and I think he is going to be fantastic for the Paralympic Movement."

There will undoubtedly be a few hurdles along the way and tougher questions ahead for Hollingsworth than those asked at his opening press conference.

But for what it is worth, I am in full agreement with Sir Philip and I feel the BPA have drafted in the best possible leader to quarterback them through what will be the most important period in their history.

Tom Degun is the Paralympics correspondent of insideworldparasport