Ade Adepitan: 'We got up to crazy things – disabled kids were wild and cool'

The Paralympic hero and TV presenter on his London childhood and becoming a basketball champion
Ade Adepitan: 'My parents thought me getting into a wheelchair was like me giving up on walking’.
Ade Adepitan: 'My parents thought me getting into a wheelchair was like me giving up on walking’. Photograph: Graeme Robertson
Ade Adepitan: 'My parents thought me getting into a wheelchair was like me giving up on walking’. Photograph: Graeme Robertson
Simon Hattenstone
Sun 18 Aug 2013 14.00 EDT

Seven seconds, eight seconds, nine. And he's off. It's like a Formula One pit stop. Within 10 seconds, Ade Adepitan has hurled the wheelchair wheels out of his huge 4x4 BMW, followed by the chair and himself, attached the wheels to the chair, eased himself into it and pushed off. I'm not sure how he does it, just that it involves a lot of wriggling, and huge upper-body strength.

The former wheelchair basketball player, British junior powerlifting champion, tennis contender (he reached 69th in the world), leading face of the famous BBC ident (featuring three wheelchair dancers, spinning and doing wheelies) actor and TV presenter is visiting the tiny terrace road where he grew up in Newham, east London. It's almost a quarter of a century since he stood outside his childhood home, a mile from the Olympic park. "It felt a lot bigger when I was a kid. It seemed there was a lot of space for adventure, and now it just looks really tight."

Adepitan has just made a powerful programme about polio in Nigeria, and it has left him both angry and nostalgic. "Oh my God, I haven't seen this place for years." He stares into a house whose front windows are lined with Bibles and Christian bric-a-brac.

Adepitan was three when his parents brought him over from Nigeria. He had contracted polio at 15 months, resulting in a useless left leg, and his parents thought that he would never thrive in Nigeria. It was a tough decision – they had to leave Adepitan's older sister, Omoyile, who has Down's syndrome, with relatives in Nigeria until they could afford to fly her over some years later.

He is giving me a guided tour of his childhood. This is where he would infuriate the neighbours by kicking the football over his house into their garden; this is Old Street, where his friends would wait in their car to whisk him off to basketball without his parents knowing; Pragel Street, where physiotherapists spotted him being wheeled in a Tesco shopping trolley by friends and suggested he took up basketball; the Housing Options Centre, where he sent a letter forged in his father's name saying he had thrown 16-year-old Ade out and he needed social housing.

His father had had such hopes for him – university, a good job, normality. Particularly normality. But young Adepitan wasn't interested. He just wanted to play sport.

One day he came home with a sports wheelchair presented by Frank Bruno's boxing club. It was worth £700, and he adored it. His parents were furious. After all, he'd managed perfectly well on callipers all his life. So what if callipers slowed him down, caused him pain and looked rubbish; they also made him relatively normal. "My parents thought me getting into a wheelchair was like me giving up on walking. And they were worried about the stigma. People in wheelchairs out and about was a completely new thing to most people." His father threw the wheelchair out of the house. Adepitan sneaked it back in and hid it under tarpaulin in the garden.

What his parents didn't understand was that Adepitan found his wheels empowering. For the first time, he felt mobile, secure, cool.

Adepitan playing against the US in the quarter-finals of the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens.
Adepitan playing against the US in the quarter-finals of the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens. Photograph: Brian Bahr

Things had been coming to a head since he was 15 and selected for the junior world powerlifting championship in Miami. He had never left Britain since arriving, and he couldn't have been more thrilled. "I was going to compete for Great Britain. Wow! I told my dad and he said: 'No, you've got your mock exams, you've got to study, no chance.' I was gutted."

Soon after, Adepitan gave up on powerlifting to concentrate on basketball. He joined Newham Rollers, a local wheelchair team, and his life was transformed.

"The disabled kids were just cooler, wilder, got up to crazy things. We'd be out in the streets racing our chairs, playing basketball, travelling all over east London like a crew. It felt like I belonged. We all had the same problems, the same issues, we took the piss out of each other's disabilities." How? "The classic thing we'd do is tip each other out of our wheelchairs, specially if we were in public. If someone sees a pretty girl and they go, 'Look at that bird over there, wow, she's cute,' then the next thing you know you tip them out of the chair just to embarrass them. Then once they're out of the chair you'd pull the wheels off their chair and roll them down the road. Yes, we were up to all sorts."

Did he ever tip himself out of his wheelchair in front of a pretty girl for the sympathy vote? He looks horrified. "No! That was absolutely taboo. The thing you never wanted was sympathy. You wanted respect but not sympathy. No way. Sympathy pissed you off."

He tells me about some of his old mates. Roddy was told he wouldn't live beyond 30 and used to drive everywhere at full pelt while smoking exploding cigarettes. He died at 27. Paul used to stuff his artificial leg with cans of beer when they were in their mid-teens. He died when he was 40. Once he and his friends were stopped by the police in a Mini Metro – there were five boys and five wheelchairs squashed into the car. The police didn't know what to make of them, and let them go.

Wonderful days, Adepitan says. When he left home at 16 he told his parents he wanted to make a living as a basketball player. Yes, he says, of course he understands why his father went ballistic. "Imagine if your kids said to you, and this is back in the 1980s: 'Dad, I want to be a wheelchair basketball player, and that's how I'm going to make a living.' You'd think they were bonkers. That's what my dad thought. But he thought of it on an even grander scale because he was convinced I was ruining my life."

His father was all the more determined that Adepitan should make something of his life because he was disappointed with the way his own had turned out. Both Adepitan's parents had been teachers in Nigeria. But when they came to London in the 1970s they couldn't get teaching jobs. His father studied through the Open University and retrained as an accountant, but still couldn't get a job. He ended up working in security and cleaning, and felt he had let his children down.

We are strolling through a park in Plaistow, east London. Everybody seems to know, or at least recognise, Adepitan. They all greet him with warmth. "It's nice," he says. "It's like the area hugs me." We come across a basketball court where he used to play. Two boys are practising. I sense that Adepitan has got the itch. Should we, I say. Before the question is out, he's pushing himself on to the court.

"How you doing, guys? Show me your skills then, man, let's see what you've got. Take some shots. That's what the basketball court's there for. Good height on that! That's a nice shot, bro!"

Adrian and Amari, both 11, tell him to take a shot. He does – and it's in. Then he tries an audacious shot over the back of his head – that's in, too. The boys are impressed.

Now Adepitan is teaching me. "Imagine you're in a telephone box and if you shoot low it's going to hit the sides. Shoot higher than you think you have to." Great advice, but it doesn't do the trick. "Look, if you were good at it straightaway you'd make us look bad!" he says supportively.

He throws one last shot and it swishes through the net. "Ah, that sound is so thereapeutic."

We leave the boys, and I ask him if he managed to make a living from basketball. He laughs. No, of course not, he says. In fact, he struggled to have any impact, only making his Paralympics debut at 26. Throughout this time, he and his parents weren't in touch. It wasn't anger that kept him from going home, it was the feeling that he had to prove himself before he could. When he was picked to represent Great Britain at the Sydney Paralympics in 2000 he took a mobile phone that his mother had given him years earlier. "It was the opening ceremony and we were pushing round the track in our Team GB gear. It was one of the greatest moments of my life, and my phone started ringing, and I picked it up and it was Mum. 'I can see you on the TV, you are on the big screen.' And when I came back from Sydney Dad was crying and he gave me a big hug, and he realised this is what I wanted to do and that was it, we were mates again."

Adepitan carries the Olympic Flame over the Millenium Bridge, 26 July 2012.
Adepitan carries the Olympic Flame over the Millenium Bridge, 26 July 2012. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The thing is, he says, despite all the years apart, and despite his father's strictness, he had always adored him – he was so funny, so warm, the type of man who could talk to anybody. Although his father never fulfilled his own hopes, in the end his children's achievements were enough. Adepitan's younger brother got a degree in sports nutrition while Omoyile worked for the Co-op. "She was one of first Down's syndrome kids in east London to get a City & Guilds in catering. Dad was so proud. That's what he wanted her to do; make sure she had an opportunity."

In 2004, he won a bronze medal as part of Great Britain's Paralympic basketball team, and in 2005 scored the winning basket that clinched gold at the Paralympic world cup in Manchester. A year later his father died after a long illness.

Adepitan might not have made money from basketball, but he has from television. The first time he appeared on TV, his charisma and communication skills were obvious. As an actor he has featured in EastEnders and as basketball coach Baggy Awolowo in the children's TV series Desperados. As presenter, he fronted C4's coverage of the Paralympic games alongside Clare Balding, and has become increasingly involved in making documentaries. Earlier this year he made a Dispatches programme about the scrapping of disability living allowance that questioned the credentials of Atos, the private company administering the replacement benefit. And now there is the polio film for C4.

The only previous time Adepitan had returned to Nigeria was to bury his father's body in 2006. As for polio, he had tried to put it to the back of his mind for most of his adult life. He didn't want to be defined by it. But over the past decade he has become increasingly interested in both the disease, which is spread by human faeces, and in Nigeria.

Alongside Afghanistan and Pakistan, Nigeria is one of only three countries that hasn't eradicated polio. In the film, he asks why – and then sees for himself. He visits a slum swimming in human sewage where the disabled are herded together ("3,000 people, leprosy in one corner, polio another, the blind another, in a place not much bigger than a basketball court"). He is even more shocked when he discovers why polio is still rife – many people in the mainly Muslim north refuse the vaccination because they believe it makes children sterile. The film ends bleakly with the vaccination programme suspended after rumours that it is being enforced, and nine female vaccinators dead. Adepitan concludes: "A toxic cocktail of terrorism and suspicion of outsiders allow for polio to thrive."

But it could have ended even more bleakly. "We only came home because the campaign had been suspended. We were cursing our luck, then the week we came back we heard that the vaccinators had been shot. We were supposed to be there filming with them at that time. There for the grace of God ..."

Adepitan in Nigeria filming Journey of a Lifetime.
Adepitan in Nigeria filming Journey of a Lifetime. Photograph: Channel 4

Adepitan, now 40, lives in upmarket Putney, dates the Scottish singer-songwriter Linda Harrison, and post-London 2012 is best known as a TV presenter. He talks about the incredible impact the Paralympics had on our attitude towards disability. Not only were they almost as popular as the Olympics, but the fact that we have started to question the fairness of the categorisation system shows just how seriously it is being taken. Adepitan says it is a huge issue for disabled athletes. While many are classified as more disabled than they are, a few (including the great sprinter Anne Wafula Strike) believe they have been classified in more able-bodied categories than they should be, making it almost impossible for them to compete. "I always foresaw, as the Paralympics was getting bigger, that classification was going to be the big problem – people pretending they're more disabled than they are getting put in a different classification. There needs to be a universal system where there is clarity and it will happen once the sport starts getting more professional and there's more at stake to lose. Part of that is people cheating the system, and part of that is also that it's really difficult to classify people because they are never exactly the same. It is the bane of disability sport, the equivalent of drug-cheating in able-bodied sport, and something that the IPC will definitely have to tackle head on in the future."

As we've been chatting, I've noticed that other wheelchairs are conspicuous by their absence. Last summer, London was transformned in a wonderful way – you couldn't move for wheelchairs and amputees. Adepitan laughs. "They suddenly came out of the woodwork!" But now disabled people are invisible again, I say. Where have they all gone? "Well, it is very rare where you're going to get a situation where you have 3,500 of the best disabled athletes in the world in one area, so that is something that is just going to happen because of the Paralympics."

I know, I say, but now London feels just like it did pre-Paralympics. He nods. "Yes, things have gone slightly backwards." Look, he says, in one way, it's all positive. "The young diasabled people I meet are not the same as when I was growing up. We knew our life was an uphill battle, that we'd constantly have to prove ourselves to be successful, but these youngsters growing up, they feel the world is their oyster."

But, he adds, public transport is disastrous. "I lived for a period without a car and used to get the train to work and it was a bloody nightmare. And I'm fit and strong and have good skills in my wheelchair. Sometimes I've jumped out of my chair on to the train and grabbed my chair and thrown it on with people watching, thinking: 'What the bloody hell's going on?' They see a chair flying past them and me falling on the floor to get in. That should not be the way. We are one of the most sophisticated societies in the world. And rural areas are even worse." For most disabled people, he says, it's simply impossible to get around.

"I'd look at countries that have great facilities, that are really accessible, some of the Scandinavian countries. The first stage is to update the tube system. I know it would cost a lot of money, but in the long run it would get disabled people out there, independent and working, so it would bring in money."

We're back at the car, and he does his pit-stop trick again, this time in reverse – out of the chair, wheels chucked in the back, followed by the chair, and he's in his driving seat – 10 seconds. "There's probably millions of disabled people out there who could do more if they had the transport. Imagine seriously disabled people trying to get to work on public transport. By the time you get there you've probably done the equivalent of a marathon, then you've got to do a day's work. No wonder you're going to be pissed off and no wonder your productivity might not be as good as everybody else." As he talks, he's getting louder and more passionate. "So go on, give us a chance. Just give us a chance. And once you've given us a chance imagine the productivity you're going to get out of us."

He's thinking aloud now. "I don't understand why the government doesn't have someone advising them on transport. To me that's a no-brainer to have someone who experiences these day-to-day issues." Like a disability tsar? "Exactly," he says, "a disability tsar." Can he think of anybody who'd be good for the job? Well, yes, he says, as it happens, he can.

Journey Of My Lifetime is on C4 at 8pm on Monday night

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