Dame Sarah Storey on para-cycling's quest for recognition: 'We still don’t have much visibility'

Tom Cary
Dame Sarah Storey won her 12th Paralympic gold medal in the C5 three-kilometres individual pursuit in Rio - PA
Dame Sarah Storey won her 12th Paralympic gold medal in the C5 three-kilometres individual pursuit in Rio - PA

It is 25 years since Dame Sarah Storey won the first of her para-swimming world titles in Malta in 1994 and 13 since she won the first of her para-cycling world titles in Aigle, Switzerland. 

Storey’s double at this year’s para road worlds in Emmen, Holland, took her career tally to 35. 

Factor in the 14 Paralympic medals Storey has hoovered up, going back all the way to Barcelona 1992, and you begin to appreciate just what a remorseless winning machine she has been over the last three decades. 

It is a haul of which Storey is justifiably proud. But ask her whether her nomination as one of the eight athletes at this year’s BT Sport Action Woman Awards constitutes a sign of growing recognition for para-sport in general, or for para-cycling in particular, and Storey is less positive. 

“Not really,” she replies, bluntly. “We had exactly the same television coverage at this year’s worlds as we had when I first raced: None.”

Storey is a positive person by nature. Now 42, and the mother of two small children, who she takes with her wherever she goes, she says she feels “better than ever”. 

Storey will be racing at the para track worlds in Milton, Canada, at the end of January, and chasing four more Paralympic titles in Tokyo next summer. But the challenge to get more recognition for her sport has proved beyond even someone of her boundless energy.

“We still don’t have much visibility,” Storey says. “In para-cycling we’re very much reliant on our governing body to promote us, and luckily British Cycling are really good in that area. They sent staff over to do social media videos and document our stories from the worlds. But outside of the Paralympics there is never any live TV coverage, there is never a media tribune, never a mixed zone, you never see people attending our championships to report on them. Or at least rarely. So we don’t really get any exposure at any level.” 

Sarah Storey celebrates with her daughter Louisa at Rio 2016 - Credit: PA
Sarah Storey celebrates with her daughter Louisa at Rio 2016 Credit: PA

Storey sighs. “I guess it was the same with women’s sport and we’re on a parallel journey with para sport. It will take time as it is much newer. But we have to find a way.”

This year’s road world championships in Yorkshire, the first to integrate para-events into the race programme, showed one potential way forward, albeit the para-athletes in Yorkshire were not actually racing for world titles. “It showed what was possible, though,” Storey says. “Hopefully it’s a step towards a fully integrated world champs. But we need to look at new models so we can maximise a return for the hosts. That’s the key. At the moment it’s a big vicious circle. 

“Could the UCI invest more? Dip into its coffers? I don’t know but we need a new strategy. The para worlds ultimately has to be profitable for the hosts. At the moment everyone wants to host the able-bodied worlds but no one wants to host the para-worlds. There is a big opportunity here to have engagement with communities.”

Storey has always been a great champion for para-sport. But she has also become an increasingly vocal campaigner for cycling and for exercise in general. Earlier this year Britain's most successful female Paralympian was named Active Travel Commissioner for the Sheffield City Region. 

Now, in between training for major events and running her own Storey Racing team, she uses her profile to try to help improve public health, cut carbon emissions and reduce congestion.

Storey cites a recent report from Diabetes UK suggesting that the number of obese people in England has almost doubled in 20 years, from 6.9 million people in 1997 to around 13 million in 2017. Alarmingly, the figures suggest that almost one in five children aged two to 15 in England are obese.

“The stats are horrifying,” Storey says. “For too long activity has been designed out of people’s lives.”

Elite sport, Storey feels, has not done enough to stem the tide. “This is the 25th anniversary of National Lottery funding,” she points out. “And it has been a huge positive. We’ve had a lot of success at elite level and I know Sport England has statistics to show we are more active as a nation. But it’s not affecting obesity rates. The way we’re using elite sport is not effective.

“There are major issues with our deprived communities. And the messaging hasn’t changed a great deal [over the last two decades]. It’s depressing that we are still talking about the dropout rate of teenage girls.”

It is clear that Storey is going to continue to be a positive force for change after she retires. Although that may still be some way off. “I don’t know,” she replies when asked how long she can continue. “Tokyo will be [Paralympic Games] number eight. I still feel physically great. At the moment my motivation levels are as high as they’ve always been. I don’t want to set a date. 

“Kristin Armstrong [the American cyclist] was 43 - and a mother - when she won gold in Rio. I’m not ruling out Paris 2024. I can cycle to that one.”

The Telegraph is proud to partner the BT Sport Action Woman Awards. To vote for your 2019 BT Sport Action Woman of the Year from the shortlist of Dina Asher-Smith, Pippa Funnell, Jade Jones, Lucy Bronze, Jamie Chadwick, Dame Sarah Storey, Bryony Frost and Katarina Johnson-Thompson visit btsport .com/actionwoman2019

Action woman awards
Action woman awards