At the age of 13, Giles Long MBE was diagnosed with cancer and lost part of his arm. He went on to become one of the most successful Paralympic swimmers of our time. Today he is an entrepreneur, public speaker and TV presenter.
He spoke with LEAD’s Tom Collinge about disability, moral support and the need for persistence
Your cancer was diagnosed at an early age, how did this affect you growing up?
The cancer made me fragile and school had the attitude that “when Giles gets better he can come back”. So I had to fight to be able to go to school. The way society regarded disability in the early nineties was very different to how it is now. I felt for a time like my life was on the scrapheap. Fortunately, I had two tutors who convinced me of the opposite: my maths teacher called Touch Kelsy and Dr Putnam, who was a retired chemist. They made science and maths come alive in a way which kept me on track. That period of my life was very difficult. If you’re a teenager, life is hard anyway but having to fight the system and make decisions which probably most adults don’t have to think about in their entire lifetime was a massive pressure.
In spite of this you found success in the pool, how did that happen?
I had been an able-bodied member of the swimming club for six years before I became ill. Because I was already known to the club, they went the extra mile to make sure I could carry on swimming. I was lucky. The experience of disabled people who arrive at clubs without already being known can be more difficult. At the time, becoming a professional swimmer was really something that only happened to a handful of people in the world; it certainly didn’t happen to disabled people. All that changed with the introduction of lottery funding in the 90s. This helped me personally and helped our Olympics and Paralympics teams punch massively above their weight.
Aside from your huge Paralympic success, you also run your own business. How did that happen?LEXI is a traffic-light-coloured infographic which very quickly explains classification systems in Paralympic sport. It’s about answering the viewers’ questions, such as: “why is it the guy with one arm racing the guy with one leg?” I first had the idea in 2000 and I persisted with it because you can’t expect people to become a fan of something they don’t fully understand. That’s what LEXI is about. It’s giving people some basic understanding, crucially before the gun goes.
Are there aspects of your experience of being a top-level athlete that you take into the business world?
It’s about work ethic. You can boil it down to “persistence beats resistance”. One of the key attributes of having success in business is to not lose heart when you get your first knockback. I’ve had so many knockbacks with Lexi over the years but I’ve always kept going because I believed in it and now that’s paying dividends.
Do you think disability is given the same attention as other diversity issues?
Certainly gender equality has a louder voice but it affects a lot more people. For people with disabilities – there is a voice but there’s not as much action. Partly, I think, because it’s harder to deal with. To be glib, employing more women shouldn’t cost your business extra. You don’t need to widen the toilet door or put a ramp in. With disabilities, not only have you got to change minds but it comes with a bigger financial outlay. That can be the sticking point: employers aren’t always prepared to put their money where their mouth is.
What is the one change you would like to see that will help improve diversity at a leadership level?Success breeds success so if people see more people like themselves, they will think they have more of a chance and they’re also more likely to get the break. So, we have to have an intervention at some point to redress that reinforcing circle. However, we have to be careful we don’t lose our meritocracy. There is a risk we end up with a situation when people think: “I don’t need to be better than everyone else, I just need to be better than everyone in my group”.