Britain's Most Underrated Athlete: In Conversation With Paralympian Richard Whitehead
Ahead of defending his 200 metres title this weekend, Paralympian Richard Whitehead remains Britain’s most underrated sporting champion.
The topography makes Rio de Janeiro the city it is. A tall tapestry, teeming with mountains, skyscrapers and, of course, the omnipresent Christ the Redeemer.
It seems apt to be sat between and beneath these physical features when profiling Britain's most impressive sportsman, the sprinter and marathon runner Richard Whitehead. It feels fitting because there is something both sublime and miraculous about the man.
At 6'3", all chest, neck and shoulders, he's a tower. His barrel torso almost seems to trip him forward off his prosthetics. An amputee world record holder in both the 200 metres and the marathon, the breadth and juxtaposition of his achievements confound logic. They set him apart from his closest current contemporaries in the current British sporting elite, Mo Farrah and Andy Murray.
He's yet to enjoy their profile. However, athletics aficionados have held the Nottinghamshire runner in the highest esteem ever since a staggering 2 hour, 42 minute time was recorded at the Chicago Marathon.
The cheers for Whitehead were the loudest heard at London's Anniversary Game this summer. It was no coincidence that a race featuring Whitehead opened the integrated programme of athletics back then. His tight blend of power, flair, drive and charisma draws the crowds.
"It's important that athletes of all classifications get the opportunity to race in full stadiums like this," Whitehead told VICE through sweat beads in the mixed zone. "Sport is not about age, colour, race, ability, disability; it's about the coming together of people."
The London Anniversary Games represented an important step in the journey that is steadily seeing Paralympians receive greater crossover recognition. There is a long way still to travel, as we have seen in the build-up to Brazil.
Whitehead was speaking before the Brazilian Paralympic Committee first conceded tickets for the Rio Games were not selling as fast as they had done in 2012. But he has seen it all before.
The 40-year-old would like to see the format of competitions for para-athletes keep pace with the standards being set by the competitors themselves. "My first major event was an integrated Diamond League event, many years ago. I was competing against [fellow London 2012 gold medallist] Jonnie Peacock. That experience, being there among Olympians, gave me that 'eye-opener' into what top level performance sport is all about, and that's why I'm still here today."
Whitehead's values come over clearly. He's about professionalism, dedication and commitment to excellence. He transcends disability sport and always has done. Born with no legs below the knees, he still made the swimming team at school. There is a classification for athletes with Whitehead's particular disability at the Paralympics – it's called T42 – but he prefers competing against athletes of all abilities.
"Racing against people with similar impairments is meant to give me a level playing field to compete, but really I want to compete against everybody else and have it be first across the line [takes all], whether they've got two legs or one arm," Whitehead said last week. "I struggle a bit with the fact that Paralympic sport is in classifications."
The classifications alienate casual sports fans too. Many swerve the Paralympics due to the alphabet soup of acronyms. It's a shame the presentation of events is confusing. Viewers miss out on competition that is full of stories, talent and, once you familiarise yourself with the protagonists, intriguing rivalries. It impacts on the athletes too – they don't get the recognition or earning power their talent, showmanship and commitment merits.
Whitehead is not motivated by money, but many would argue he would be entitled to feel his endeavours should have brought greater financial reward.
"Money should be secondary," he tells VICE. "The evolution of sport will one day, all of a sudden, take place. Then we'll have the same monetary value. But at the moment we should reciprocate the opportunities given to us by giving our support back, and not necessarily putting hands out for cash. I do what I do because I love it."
No one doubts this is the case, but it is not without sacrifice. The marathons, of course, are the most gruelling. The blisters form on the knees not the feet in Whitehead's case, for obvious reasons, and more lasting wear and tear is accrued across the body. His greatest display of endurance was running 40 miles in 40 days – 1,000 miles – to raise hundreds of thousands of pounds for cancer charity Sarcoma in 2013.
"Mentally I am tougher than I am physically," he said at the time. The motivation for taking it on came from hearing the story, years earlier, of Terry Fox, a fellow amputee who ran across Canada. Fox lost a leg to osteosarcoma. The cancer came back and he did not complete that journey. But the story had a defining impact on Whitehead, who now says he runs to show others what is possible, rather than to win medals.
"My whole outlook is around being positive, believing that you can achieve anything in life, and working really fucking hard," he says. Whitehead has already achieved so much. His first taste of the Paralympics came in the Turin Winter Olympics of 2006, where he competed in ice sledge hockey. He taught himself to run in his twenties, first through attaching sport caps to his knees, then working his way up from running his first mile to running marathons. Now he is breaking sprint world records in his 40s.
There is no marathon for lower limb amputees at the Rio Paralympics, so Whitehead's focus will be the 200 metres this weekend, and then the 100 metres next week. Where his career goes beyond Rio is open to speculation, and imagination, but we'd be wise to savour Britain's most underrated sportsman at this, his final Paralympic Games.