Episode 34 is an interview with one of the most recognisable names in Paralympic sport and disability rights, Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson DBE.
We talk about how she measures her own performance, the importance of developing a hinterland as an athlete and also get an insight into her current life as a politician. It’s a fascinating interview about influence, impact, and how to leverage the profile you have.
Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson DBE has been a Crossbench Peer in the House of Lords since 2010. Her Paralympian career saw her compete in five Paralympic Games winning 16 medals in total. Over her career, Tanni broke 30 World Records on the track.
She has sat on the boards of the National Disability Council, the Sports Council for Wales and UK Sport, and currently sits on the boards of TfL and the London Legacy Development Corporation.
Her charity appointments include being board members of The Duke of Edinburgh Awards, Sportsaid and The Tennis Foundation and she is a non-exec director on the BBC Board.
THE TRANSCRIPT BELOW WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, WE CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.
TX: 1.12.18 – Ep 34. Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson DBE – From athlete to political influencer
HOST: TAMMY PARLOUR
T: Welcome to a Question of Performance. I’m Tammy Parlour and in this series I’ll be talking with leading figures from sport and business about what improves, limits and drives performance. Join me for 20 minutes of discussion twice a month to hear a range of views on what it means to be successful, how to cope with failure and what people have learnt along the way.
Today I’m with one of the most recognisable names in Paralympics Sport and Disability Rights, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson. We talk about how she measures her own performance. The importance of developing an hinterland as an athlete and we also get insight into her current life as a politician. It’s a fascinating interview about influence, impact and how to leverage the profile that you have. Mention Tanni’s name to anyone in the UK and most people will have heard of her. I asked her first what it’s like having that sort of name recognition.
B: It can be really nice having that sort of recognition because people are generally very kind and can be very supportive and it can also be challenging, more so for my family because sometimes it intrudes on kind of personal and family time when people come up and want to have a conversation with me and actually my husband and daughter are really understanding about you know if you’ve been an athlete, you’ve been in the public eye and I’m in politics now so in a different kind of public eye, but you are on show most of the time so you have a responsibility to be, sort of polite to people and dignified and try and offer people time, but the worst of that is that if you’ve been in somebody’s living room whether you’re competing or talking about politics, people treat you like a family member and that can be great. You know people will say things to you and it’s actually generally really funny because they treat you as if they know you and so it can be things like, you’re not as skinny as you used to be or BBC have good make-up artists, yes they do, or you know I completely disagree with what you say.
So it’s swings and roundabouts is the honest answer. I’ve been retired 12 years and I’m still called you’re that athlete aren’t you? So that’s the hardest thing sometimes is because my life as an athlete absolutely ended, probably actually ended 13 years ago and I’ve changed, but sometimes the public perception is as if you haven’t changed and you just, you deal with it, it’s fine and it’s still hugely flattering, but I think as an athlete you’re seen, you can be seen as part of a one dimensional person. I never define myself totally as being an athlete and that kind of event diagram. So I think for me that’s really helpful, but that’s how I define myself, but a lot of other people just you in one way.
T: Can you define a point where your popularity just suddenly soared?
B: It was 1992. That was clear. So I won the London marathon in April that year and got a reasonable amount of coverage around that and then Barcelona where I won 5 medals, 4 golds and silver at the Barcelona Paralympics. So that moved it to another level, but that was as much because Helen Rollason, TV presenter who passed away a few years after that she had been at the Olympics, she’d covered the Paralympics and she showed in a really positive way it was sport and it was nothing else and where Helen was a huge influence on Paralympics Games was that she had been the first woman to present Grandstand and it made the National news it was “how dare they put a woman on Grandstand” ooh you know the World will end. What do women know about sport I remember back so she sort of dealt with lots of issues in terms of her getting to present Grandstand and she was really good at it and she had this massive influence on the way that Paralympics Sport was covered. So I think I was lucky my success at those Games and the way that she had a very strong editorial influence gave me a lot of cover. I think also being Welsh, living in Wales we’ve got a lot of our own media, a lot of our own sort of choice about what sports are covered so I think that helped me as well that if I’d lived in England I don’t think I would have got very much regional coverage where living in Wales it was National coverage.
T: Many athletes as they grow in popularity realise that they have a platform. They start asking questions about what do you want to do with that power and the profile that you are developing. How did you go about asking that of yourself?
B: I think there was always other things that I was really interested in so disability rights was one of them and I sort of slightly think that sport was a distraction for me for a whole bunch of years, but I think I would have gone into work in Disability Rights instead of an athlete.
T: Did you study politics as well I believe?
B: I studied politics at Loughborough. I actually wanted to do history and they closed the course just before I went so a whole bunch of us transferred onto other courses and I suppose history is really similar. No intention at that point of going into politics per se, but I think a lot of it was from my family. You can only spend so many hours a day training you need to do other things and my Dad always used to say to me education gives you choices and that can be formal education or just reading the newspaper or reading a book or just learning about something.
So and this comes back to me not just defining myself as an athlete. I would try to be lots …. because your career as an athlete can be taken away from you really quickly. You’re injured, you’re not quick enough you have so little control in your life as an athlete and so for me it was always important to have other things and as an athlete I’d say I had an internal opinion within sport about what I thought was going well or not well. Very careful about having an external opinion because I think that’s a difficult role to manage while you’re competing. Having very strong personal opinions on Disability Rights, but also part of it was that preparing for the time that I was going to retire, what I was going to do in life afterwards.
So I think it’s hard, you don’t, even when you’ve got a platform you don’t always realise that you’ve got one so there wasn’t this grand plan for what you know, what platform am I going to use. For me it was just about having an opinion and having well founded researched thoughtful opinion not…. I’ve got an opinion on everything, absolutely everything. Most of it shouldn’t be public and so it’s deciding what you want to have a public opinion on and what you should just keep…. So as you know what my Dad would say learn when to keep your mouth shut and that’s a really important skill to learn. I don’t always get it right.
T: How does one learn that? Just by making mistakes?
B: Yeah and you know thinking about all the other things that happen around and I think you should be true to your opinion and you should say within reason what you think, but it has to be this considered opinion, you can’t just stamp your feet and just say this is the World according to Tanni because that’s not probably a very sensible place to be.
So that comes, with me it came over time and my career was 5 games and you just through time I got more exposure, I became a non-exec and I worked in sport and I got lots of different experiences so I was never just an athlete and for me that was really helpful because that gave me a lot of experience and skills for when I eventually stopped competing.
T: In 2010 you became an independent cross bench working peer in the House of Lords. How did that come about?
B: I sat on… Actually a small part of it was my life as an athlete so that’s the bit that was public, but the other side of it was I sat on lots of different Sports Bodies so I sat on Sports Councils from Wales and sat on Sport England Lottery Panel where in the early 90’s we had £20m a month to spend on capitol buildings. So you know that teaches you a lot and then got transferred to UK Sport and was part of the panel that set up lottery funding and I find it quite funny that somebody recently said to me let me explain to you how lottery funding works and I kind of experienced it, was part of the whole process of it and it’s evolved a lot since it was set up and then I sat on the National Disability Counsel which oversaw the implementation of a Disability Discrimination Act.
So I did all these other things.
T: Was that a conscious stepping stone process?
B: Some of it yes, some of it no. Some of it was being presented with an opportunity and deciding whether you want to take it or not. I had an idea of where I wanted to end up eventually. Also when I was competing I did bits and pieces of TV work representing and it’s about building that CV and building your skills because it’s actually David Moorcroft said to me you’re a long time retired and really important and I didn’t want the most important and the best thing in my life to be something that happened 30 years ago and nothing will be the same as competing in front of 100,000 people. We had demonstration races that I did for Olympics as well. I competed in the Olympic Stadium the same night Cathy Freeman ran, pretty amazing. Nothing will be the same as that again, but also I don’t want to always look backwards I kind of look forward.
So there is some consciousness about what I chose to do and how I tried to put stuff together and then it’s taking opportunities and figuring out what you’ve done and the biggest thing I think I was able to do when I retired was, partly to know what I didn’t want to do. That’s a big step forward and had a bit of a buffer to give me an opportunity to think because when you’re in that, you know you’re training all the time, it’s hard to think about what life is like when you’re no longer in it and for me it was important to have a buffer so I didn’t just take the first opportunity I was offered because I think that’s just really hard. It might have worked out it might not have.
So in any way to get to be a cross bencher I was nominated and there was an interview process and they look at where you are now, where they think you are going to be in 10 or 20 years time and how you can contribute and they do a simple gap analysis, they look who is in the Chamber, who is doing stuff, what gaps there are and there was a gap for somebody who knew Disability Rights and who understood sport because we’d won the 2012 games by then and there was lots of fairly boring legislation to get through like Sunday trading road closures. Not big exciting stuff, but things that made the Games work and so I sat through all that and yeah that was partly how I ended up here.
T: In elite sport which measures performance by medals and PB’s what you do now is more ambiguous. How do you measure your own performance?
B: So as an athlete I did absolutely measure gold medals, but I’ve looked at it in lots of different ways because you can have the race of your life and you might not win and you can not be the best on the day and something happens and you win. So for me it’s, the medal was the big declaration, because that’s the medal tables. Silvers and bronzes only count if there’s a tie for gold. They have no values to the team. That’s the harsh World of it, but we always had lots of different ways of looking at it to track performance and some of that transfers really well into stuff now.
So sometimes it’s, you do it on losing or winning votes, that’s quite an arbitrary measure. You can sort of measure more internally how legislation has changed or how you think you’ve impacted it, but that kind of reflection is really important because you might not get everything you wanted in a piece of legislation and that’s democracy and it’s okay how you can learn from that to do better next time. I write speeches, but I might go back and look at them again and think okay was that really the best thing, could I have said it better, could I have said it differently and I’ve got friends who are amazing. They watch the Parliament Channel, which is above and beyond anything for friends to do, and they’ll just say oh that was a bit boring or um. So as an athlete you’re used to a lot of feedback and it’s important to keep getting that. It’s important to have honest feedback and from a place of kind of position of love maybe or because that’s one way that you’ll learn to do better next time.
T: How would you say you got things done now as a politician or a campaigner? What’s your style? Or your super power maybe?
B: I try to be collaborative I mean there are times where you have to just stand up and say what you think. So as a diversity and inclusion of that basic thing and there’s lots of people talking about DNI and it’s all lovely and okay there’s stuff that’s moved on in my life, but I kind of ended up sitting on stage. I was meant to do a really positive thing about how far we’ve come and actually I got to my bit, I was only doing a few minutes and I got so actually there were 60 people in the room and there is no one else has got visible impairment. Sticking me on stage doesn’t make it okay. I think I slightly terrified them, but sometimes it’s, there’s lots of different routes to success and in the law some of it’s the Chamber and some of it can be over a cup of tea.
I’ve got some of my best work done and learned more from sitting and having a cup of tea with someone than sometimes when you speak in the Chamber. So you understand there’s all these different layers and you can achieve success in lots of different ways it’s not just winning a big vote in Lords because the stuff I do it mostly gets overturned when it goes to the Commons. So it’s understanding, it’s like knowing the rules of Sport and you kind of need to know the rules of wherever you work.
T: What do you find the most frustrating?
B: That’s a really difficult question.
T: What extinguishes your burning fire that then you have to okay get my head back, onwards and upwards?
B: What’s really interesting about being in politics is that people are generally quite positive. I found the Lords a really open place to work. I find here I know much more clearly where I stand with people. Where other places I’ve worked it has been, there’s less politics in the House of Lords than there is in the outside World. I guess the frustration, things that frustrated me, I’ve had stuff that’s been filibusted out, that’s really annoying because this is a really good argument and this is really important and you’ve just done a 40 minute speech to make sure that, it’s really hard for me, but that’s sort of momentary frustration. I think if you ever get to the point where you just feel you’re smashing your head into a brick wall it’s time to do something different.
So I’ve not yet hit the point where I just think okay this is not for me I need to go away and do something else. Not yet, I probably will at some point, but I think part of it is I’m definitely a glass half full type of person and I’m looking for the next chance opportunity, the next point I’ve got an ability to do something else.
T: What is that next one? What are you hoping to achieve? What’s in your sights at the moment?
B: So at the moment I’m doing quite a lot on provision of day cares for disabled people which has been the Post Code Lottery and Universal Credit which is just deeply depressing. There’s a number of people who just don’t have a voice who are just trying to fight their way through the system and when you’re going through it, it’s hard to see the wood for the trees. So I recognised that I had a very lucky privileged life in that I was born with an impairment, but my parents protected me from a lot of discrimination. I went to mainstream schools. My parents fought to get me into mainstream schools and I got an education and then sport and my Dad was always very keen to tell me how lucky I was and that he felt I had a responsibility to do other stuff and that was never, it was never more than I thought I could do, but there’s a bit of that in me that I just think there but for the grace of whoever I’ve had a lot of opportunities, a lot of chance and that’s we need to do that for other people.
T: This podcast is all about performance and success and what that means to different people. What does that mean to you? What’s success for Tanni Grey-Thompson?
B: There’s about six different answers. Success as an athlete was gold medals and it’s not medals it was gold medals. For me it’s about breaking World records, it was about being on the start line and racing to my maximum potential every time I raced so there’s lots of other races. If I had to pick my top 10 races probably 4 of them would be races where I won a gold medal at the Paralympics or Rhodes. There’s other things that were important to me.
Success as a Mom because that comes into it I have no idea. My daughter is 16, she’s an incredible young woman, but she challenges me every single day. There is no manual that comes with being a Mom, it’s the hardest thing I’ve done. And being in politics it’s about time to make it better, but you are really conscious that every decision we take every vote will affect some people for the better and then some people will be really upset with what you do as well so there’s sometimes in politics you can’t win and you’re trying to weave your way through some really complex issues. I would say, I take voting here really seriously and if I can’t explain in five sentences why I voted a certain way, I shouldn’t vote because how we vote affects people from before they’re born until after they’re dead. Everyone I work with takes that seriously because you have to. We are part of the jigsaw that makes up this place, but the output of this place affects lots of people’s lives.
T: If you think of your own measures of success would you say you’re successful?
B: I’m doing okay I think.
T: So far so good.
B: No because I could always do better.
T: Do you look backward or are you just forward focused?
B: No, I do look back. I mean I look back when people talk to me about by sporting career. I don’t sit and look back at it really at all.
T: But sometimes you’re taken back?
B: I’m taken back and if you come to our house there is nothing in our house that would show that either me or my husband have been athletes. We don’t have anything on display. It’s not, for me that’s not, I kind of sometimes look at friends who’ve got their GB vests up I think “that’s really nice”, but that’s not how we are as a family. I suppose I continue to feel I’ve not done enough and actually that’s one of the things that drives me forward and for me it’s quite a positive thing. It’s like well no okay that was fine, but I need to do more. That you know it’s that continual thing.
There’s so much stuff that I’m interested in and care about and I want to try and fit… and I think that one of the hard things is being in politics you get invited to do lots of things being involved in different campaigns and it’s being really straight with people if you can’t help them, if you can’t contribute you have to tell them that you can’t because it’s really easy to spend a lot of time being pulled in a million different directions.
T: Is that something you had to learn?
B: I think I had to learn it when I was competing actually in terms of some of the roller coasters and stuff I was doing outside sport, balancing training and competing all those things. For most of my career there wasn’t any lottery funding so I had to work and it’s good, actually I really think it’s good to have other stuff in your life.
I work in London, I live in the North East, I’m away from my family a lot and I feel like I’m constantly spinning plates and some days I have really good days and some days I just think “what have I done”? I had a day last week where I’d been in the building from 9 in the morning to 10.30 at night and thought “what have I actually done today?” So that reflection sometimes you know as an athlete you have lots of time to reflect. You have less time now, but I think that reflection is really important. My family are critical friends in terms of okay what are you doing and I think to choose and ultimately I choose to be away from my family. I know it’s quite harsh, but looking at it, it’s got to matter because I’m choosing to be away from my family.
T: Just going to end up with some quick fire questions okay? What did you eat for breakfast?
B: Porridge. That’s a good day to ask me that.
T: Favourite piece of kit?
B: I’ve got a pair of tri spoke carbon wheels which was the first set of really, really expensive wheels I ever bought and they are beautiful and they are in still in a good condition. I totally lied to my mother about how much I’d spent.
T: Do you take them out and stroke them now and again?
B: They are on our garage wall and I’ve given away like every racing chair I’ve had I’ve given away pretty much every set of wheels, I’ve given pretty much everything I ever had to other people apart from these wheels, because they’re beautiful.
T: Sporting hero?
B: Chris Hallam, Welsh athlete won the London marathon in the 80’s, he was incredible, loud, obnoxious, rude, huge friend of mine and he put Paralympics on the map.
T: A useless piece of advice that you’ve either been given or given to somebody else.
B: [laughing] useless… Most useless piece of advice I’ve been given is where somebody said to me oh be honest, go on be really, really honest and then six minutes into the conversation they said oh no I didn’t mean that honest. So yeah when people say be honest I always ask how honest do you really want me to be? Scale of 1 to 10.
T: Good advice. Greatest passion outside of sport?
B: Sport [laughing] all bits of sports. Outside well physical activity, but when I say sport I think like the whole gamut and is there anything else?
T: Fair enough. Last question best performance enhancer?
T: Haribo [laughing].
B: Yes Haribo, should I say coffee instead? Coffee and Haribo.
T: Coffee and Haribo what a brilliant combination. It’s been great talking to you and thank you very much.
B: Thank you.
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