'I can do anything'

Ade Adepitan, one of the stars of this year's London marathon, talks to Emine Saner about life as a Paralympic basketball star, his TV career, and coming to terms with being bullied
Wed 2 May 2007 03.51 EDT

It's not even two weeks since he completed his first London marathon, but Ade Adepitan is already considering doing another one. Even though he finished the 26 miles in an incredible two hours and 31 minutes, he wonders now if he could have done better. "I think I could have done it faster," he says. "I think because of my pride, I might have to do it again just to prove what I can do." So we'll see him there again next year? He looks pained at the thought - he says he found the training really gruelling - but then smiles his big gappy grin again.

Adepitan, who is 34, contracted polio as a child, and although he was able to walk with callipers for much of his childhood, he now uses a wheelchair. You may recognise Adepitan from the BBC ident he appeared in between programmes - one of three wheelchair basketball players who spin around in their chairs on a court - or from his basketball heroics. He was a key member of the basketball squad in the 2000 Sydney and 2004 Athens Paralympics and it was Adepitan's last-minute shot, under extreme pressure, that won the British team gold at the World Cup in 2005. He was made an MBE in the same year.

As a TV presenter and actor, he has appeared on Xchange and Desperados, both BBC children's shows, and is considered "cool" by children both with and without disabilities. There are the dreads, of course, and today, when we meet in a pub near his home in north London, he's wearing a black shirt, jeans and pristine Timberland boots - one advantage of being in a wheelchair, he once joked. Do lots of people think he's cool? Adepitan laughs. "Possibly. Maybe that's just the East End thing though. When you grow up there, it's all about being cool."

Adepitan's popularity probably also has something to do with the change in the way we view Paralympic sport. Where once a patronising triumph-over-adversity view of Paralympians seemed to dominate, now they are seen as elite athletes, thanks, mainly in this country at least, to the achievements of athletes such as Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson. "Paralympic athletes are getting more recognition," says Adepitan. "When I was growing up it got virtually no coverage; 20 years ago, I wouldn't be as well known. But there is still a large number of people out there who aren't interested, although I think the younger generation are. I would like to see much more coverage of other events, not just the Paralympics every four years."

Adepitan has the air of a fighter, determined and competitive. It's probably partly because he grew up in a rough part of east London - "when you have a disability and you grow up in a challenging, macho environment, you can't show any weakness or you'll get crushed" - and partly because of his parents. He remembers his father carrying him on his shoulders to school, not just because walking the 15 minutes would have tired Ade out before the start of his school day, but because "he probably wanted me to feel like the biggest person on the planet".

Adepitan was never one to back down and accept abuse when he was growing up, but what he didn't expect was that he would still be receiving it when he was in his 30s. Last summer, he and a friend, also in a wheelchair, went to a nightclub in central London. He had been to the club before, but on this occasion the doorman stopped them. Adepitan griped for a few minutes, then they both left. He claims that the doorman shouted after them: "Yeah, that's right, fuck off you fucking cripple." Adepitan, shocked and furious, went back to face him. He says the doorman said: "Come back and try it when you've got legs."

"That was quite a wake-up call. It wasn't the first time it had happened to me, but it was the first time it had happened so blatantly. Most of the time they come up with some ridiculous excuse, such as you're a fire hazard, but they will at least try to be polite about it, but this time, this guy actually called me a 'fucking cripple'. That was a real shock. I was also angry because my friend had to face that abuse as well."

The nightclub has always denied the incident. Adepitan's friend, the comedian Russell Brand, wrote a piece for the Hlcarpenter.com expressing his outrage. "The nightclub denies Ade's version of the encounter, saying that he had been abusive and aggressive to the club's staff," he wrote. "To me this seems out of character and highly unlikely."

Adepitan says the incident affected him for months afterwards. "Why would I go round [falsely] accusing people of calling me a "fucking cripple"? I went through a period of being really down and not going out." Now, he says, when he goes to clubs doormen are always very polite to him, but it's obvious the anger is still there. Adepitan was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and contracted polio at six months old, which left his legs weak and damaged. His parents decided to come to the UK so their son could receive better care. It was a difficult decision to take - their older daughter has Down's syndrome and they couldn't afford to bring them both. They chose Ade, who was three. "They felt my need was greater," he says. "They brought my sister over later but I always had a sense of guilt, that I was the lucky one, the chosen one, who had that opportunity. It took about another seven or eight years before they could bring her over."

Adepitan's father died last year and the family took his body to Nigeria to be buried. It was the first time Adepitan had been back. It was a humbling experience. "I visited the village where my parents grew up. Even today the level of poverty is so great. When I looked at that and thought, 'That's what it's like now, what was it like when my parents were growing up?' It made me realise how strong my parents must have been to save and come to this country and survive."

Adepitan's father came to Britain first to earn enough money to bring his wife and son here. The family settled in Newham, in east London and Adepitan's parents found that Britain in the 70s - and especially Newham, which had a strong National Front presence - wasn't as welcoming as they had hoped. Both had been teachers in Nigeria, but neither wanted to teach at the local, mainly white, inner-city schools.

"It would have been difficult for them to have taught in that racial landscape. My father retrained as an accountant but I think in those days it was difficult for a black man to get work so he ended up doing lots of different jobs, like being a security guard." He eventually ended up working for the Inland Revenue, while his mother worked in a jobcentre.

As a child, Adepitan didn't consider himself disabled. He avoided mirrors "because that was the only time I realised I had a disability". His father fought to get him a place at the local mainstream school, but it can't have been much fun being disabled and one of only about three black kids at his school. "Actually, I was fortunate," he says. The last to be picked for a game of football, Adepitan was put in goal and managed to save a shot from the best footballer in the school. "From that moment on, I gained their respect. I remember one of the best fighters in the school coming up to me and saying, 'If anyone says anything about your leg or about being black, you come to us and we'll sort them out'."

It's easy to believe that Adepitan's sheer force of personality, his enthusiasm for life, stopped his disability becoming the issue that it might have been. "It could have been a hindrance if I allowed it. I was always really determined to do the stuff that my friends were doing. If you show enthusiasm, other people respond to it and because I so wanted to do things, people helped me. My friends helped carry me up the stairs at school, we used to nick shopping trolleys and race around the streets so I could keep up with my mates. One of my teachers designed this float I could put on my legs so I could learn to swim."

But it wasn't all easy - far from it. A couple of years ago, Adepitan took part in a BBC series, Beyond Boundaries, in which 11 disabled people trekked across Nicaragua. Using all his strength, he managed to climb a volcano - which meant getting out of his wheelchair, and pulling himself up with his arms - but it left him physically and emotionally exhausted, and brought back long-suppressed memories of childhood taunts - how the kids at school would call him "black monkey" if they saw him crawling, which is he how he had to get about without his chair or callipers. "There was loads of it, and if you get bogged down with it then it holds you back, so I've always tried to ignore it. It took something like the volcano for me to remember it. Because I've always been so independent and able, it's been easy to forget about those tough times. Maybe that's always why I've been challenging myself, to run away from those moments, put them as far in the distance as possible."

Adepitan was 14 when he discovered basketball. He was being pushed through the streets in a shopping trolley by his friends when he was spotted by a couple of physiotherapists, who asked if he would consider playing wheelchair basketball. Adepitan refused because he thought it was a ploy to get him out of his mainstream school.

They persisted and eventually Adepitan agreed to watch a game. "I'd never seen so many people with disabilities. It was quite difficult at first, but when I saw the guys playing basketball, it blew me away and I saw how amazing they were, they were athletes. I was becoming increasingly frustrated that I couldn't compete with my mates on an equal level. Wheelchair basketball was a chance for me to compete with people on that level."

He was a natural and was soon playing with players more than two years older than him. This introduced him to something else: girls. "I still had hang-ups about my disability and didn't know if any girl at school would want to go out with me. But when I played in basketball tournaments, it was almost as if I put on this Superman cloak, I had all this confidence. All my friends who played basketball were all older than me - they were all 16, 17, and at that stage where girls ruled their world, so I'd go out with them and chat girls up." He went out with his first girlfriend when he was 16. "She was 18. It's always great when you're that age and you pull a girl older than you."

Does he find that there's still a weird attitude towards people with disabilities having a sex life? "I think there is but it's changing. Lately, I've had women come up to me, trying to chat me up. If I wasn't on TV would I be getting the same reaction? There's the opinion that disabled people aren't sexy, they don't have sex, but that's completely untrue."

Adepitan's parents were unhappy about his basketball career. He does an impression of his father's soft Nigerian voice. "He would say, 'You are black, you are disabled - you have to work twice as hard as anyone if you want to succeed in this world. "His ethos was education and he wanted me to study. He said, 'You're not going to get anywhere playing wheelchair basketball.'"

At 16, he left home. Living alone proved how independent he could be and when he moved to Spain when he was 21 to play professionally, it improved his confidence even more. He had been selected for the British team when he was 18 but it took eight years of hard work before he made the squad for the Sydney Olympics in 2000 at the age of 26. He didn't even tell his parents he was going. Someone told his father, though, and he saw his son play for the first time on the television. "When I came back, my dad started crying. I think that was the first time that he had respect for what I was trying to do."

They were beaten to a bronze medal by the United States in the final seconds but the team went on to win bronze at the Athens Olympics four years later, silver at the European Championships and gold at the World Cup. Adepitan, the most recognisable player in a sport that was attracting more attention, retired from international level in 2005, although he still plays for his club. It was a tough decision, he says, but he realised he was in his early 30s, not really qualified for anything, and had to start making some money.

He plans to do much more television work but it has been difficult, he says, to convince TV companies to use him. "I'm starting to open doors that were hard to open. It hasn't been easy. I've always felt that I had to prove that I can do this. I get frustrated with people's ignorance. They have preconceived ideas of what someone on TV should look like."

He looks slightly weary when I ask if he lives in a specially adapted flat (he gets asked that a lot, he says, and no, he doesn't). "I drive a car with hand controls. I can do most things. I've done so much stuff and been to so many amazing places. I can do anything I want and that's a great thing."

I wonder if he is still on the receiving end of pitying looks? "Not any more. Too many people have seen what I've done now. Why would anyone want to take pity on me?" I can't think of a single reason.