Paralympic swimming champion and now a campaigner for accessibility and diversity, Lord Holmes closed the conference with a rousing address on overcoming adversity.
Chris Holmes began with a bold assertion that diversity is good for business. “Sustainability, wellbeing, employee satisfaction, customer care, profit and share price growth are all imperative. But none are achievable if they’re not predicated on inclusivity and the concept that everyone has a role to play,” he said.
Holmes’ life changed when as a 14-year-old, already a promising swimmer, he lost his sight overnight. “What I sensed in those first few days and weeks was barriers coming up and people treating me differently,” he remembered. “There was a ‘culture of can’t.’ I was even told I couldn’t go back to the pool because I was a fire risk.
“But I achieved because people got around me and supported me. They made it possible because as individuals they had an inclusive mindset.”
It took Chris Holmes five years of training five hours a day to qualify for the Barcelona Paralympics, where he won five golds in five days. And in the swim meet’s final event – the 100m freestyle – he just beat the local favourite to lift his medal tally to an unprecedented six golds. “Two million metres of training for each arm stroke of that final, and all it came down to was half a second,” he recalled.
Three more golds followed in Atlanta and Sydney before Holmes was invited to join the bid team for London 2012. London’s aim was to make the first fully inclusive Olympic and Paralympic bid. “The most important thing for me was to have access, diversity and inclusion hardwired right through the organisation,” Holmes said.
But winning the right to host the games was only the beginning. “We then had to deliver over a seven-year period, and everything we did had to embody those three things,” Holmes said. “The thing that drove me was that if we got it right we’d fundamentally change forever attitudes to and opportunities for disabled people.”
The 2012 Paralympic Games were an unprecedented success with every single ticket sold out and wall-to-wall coverage on free-to-air TV making household names of athletes like David Weir, Ellie Simmons and Sarah Storey. “It was the most sensational world-class event,” says Holmes.
“There’s no separate world of disability. It’s just people like you, people like me. It comes down to one individual believing things can be other than they are. So ask yourselves ‘what am I going to do to enable potential to be unleashed,’” he concluded.