By Georgie Knaggs
Forty years ago, on March 27 1973, a little boy called Adedoyin Adepitan was born in Lagos University teaching hospital in Nigeria. His parents didn’t know it then, but Polio was about to change the course of his life forever.
By the time Ade was three, the disease had infected his young body and turned his world upside-down. The virus left him unable to use his left leg and forced him and his parents to move to England in search of treatment and a better life for their disabled child.
Iron calipers (leg braces) were a start, but they could only do so much for a boy on the hunt for excitement. Shopping trolleys and a couple of mates to push him around sped things up a little. The trick caught the attention of Owen McGhee and Kay Owen, two physiotherapists with a passion for disability sport. They took twelve-year-old Ade to Stoke Mandeville to show him wheelchair basketball, and he was instantly hooked. Ditching his calipers for a wheelchair, basketball became his life, offering the skills, speed, adrenalin and confidence he had been searching for.
Ade went on to become a professional wheelchair basketball player and, fifteen years after his trip to Stoke Mandeville, he was selected for the British men’s wheelchair basketball team in the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney. It was the start of five years of intense international competition for him and the team, at European, World Championship and Paralympic level.
By 2006 Ade had been capped 90 times and had won fistfuls of medals including bronze at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens and gold from the 2005 Paralympic World Cup in Manchester. But he was also heading into his mid-thirties and in need of a new career.
Ade, who was awarded an MBE in 2005 for services to disability sport, decided to retire and focus on his work in media and broadcasting. Thanks to his years as an ambassador for London’s Olympic and Paralympic bid, alongside Tanni Grey-Thompson and others, Ade was already well-known in the media. He developed this work further and in 2012 topped it off by joining Clare Balding to present Channel 4’s Paralympics. The coverage went on to earn Channel 4 a Bafta in May this year.
Since the Olympics, Ade has turned his attention to less developed countries, where people with disabilities face enormous barriers. Ade has visited Uganda to meet disabled people there. Travelling to Mexico for Channel 4’s Unreported World, he faced his own preconceptions about mental illness when he met a collective of people with psychiatric disabilities fighting for their rights. Most poignantly perhaps he has been back to Nigeria, the land of his birth, to raise awareness of the needless suffering caused by polio and to touch the lives that could easily have been his.
The reports make difficult viewing, but Ade’s engaging personality offers a bridge that lets the viewer in. The warmth in his voice, ease in front of a camera and humour, which is born from his own experiences, spark the reactions that touch so many with hope.
In a recent interview, Ade Adepitan was asked what ambitions he had. His reply was that he wanted see the day when the complete eradication of polio was announced to the world.
Polio clearly has a problem. The young boy it infected in Lagos, now a British Paralympic medallist and television presenter, has an old score to settle, and he doesn’t like to lose.
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