While four of the British Para table tennis players representing ParalympicsGB in Tokyo are about to take part in their very first Paralympic Games, coach Neil Robinson is experiencing his tenth – a remarkable achievement and one that he admits he finds hard to believe.
“I feel very privileged to have been around this long,” he said, “but quite proud that I have managed to stay the course to date really. I’ve seen a lot of changes - the growth of the Paralympics generally and the growth of Paralympic table tennis has been incredible.”
After four days the team has settled into the Paralympic village in Tokyo and Robinson is full of praise for their Japanese hosts.
“With the environment we are in I think they have done an incredible job. The Japanese people – the volunteers and staff – are all incredibly friendly and helpful. Most of them speak a bit of English which is good and puts us to shame. It just feels good here. We are fortunate with our location – GB house is overlooking the river in a beautiful location and the apartments are good. Everything is very organised, and everybody is incredibly friendly and helpful and makes you feel good.”
As a player Robinson was one of Britain’s most successful Paralympians, representing his country in seven Games, winning seven medals including gold in the men’s class 3 team event in Barcelona in 1992, and was European champion and World number one. In 2012 he received an MBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List for his services to the sport.
With an estimated global TV audience of 4.25 billion people set to watch the Tokyo Games, Robinson recalls his first Paralympic Games back in 1984.
“Before 1988 the Paralympic Games were in a different city to the Olympics,” he said, “and were also split between the wheelchair event and the standing event. In 1984 the standing Games went on in New York as scheduled and the wheelchair Games should have been in Champagne, Illinois but for some mysterious reason they were cancelled at the last minute. Stoke Mandeville, which was the only place that could have catered for it, took on the wheelchair Games at the 11th hour so we ended up going up the M4 to Stoke Mandeville rather than getting on a 747 to the USA.
“Looking back to those first Games and the way things have changed – for example as a British team we were staying in a Primary School in Aylesbury and sleeping on beds in classrooms. There was a blackboard in the classroom where every day we would write silly motivational messages. Morale was incredibly high really – I think people expected less so we all mucked in and team spirit was really good.
“I hadn’t been playing that long, so I wasn’t going there with any expectations of achieving as such it was more to gain experience, and my memories really are not so much of playing but actually observing the best players and the styles that I wanted to try and replicate. So that was the earliest memory really – studying some of the guys and the way they played. There was a German player called Thomas Kreidel who was a pretty special class 4 player at that time and had quite an attacking style and a top spin game which was what I tried to base my game on really. So 1984 was more of a reconnaissance mission because it was a stepping stone to trying to improve myself.”
Seoul in 1988 was the first time that the Paralympic Games were held in the same venue as the Olympics and Robinson acknowledges how important it was that the Paralympics were recognised on the same stage as the Olympics.
“The Games in 1988 were so much bigger,” he said. “I can remember going into the Opening Ceremony with a crowd of 60,000 people and it just felt incredible going into that stadium with the floodlights on - it felt as though the Paralympics had truly arrived. Being in Korea which is a table tennis country there was a good focus on table tennis as well so that was good. It was all still growing at that time, but it took a massive step up from 1984.
“When I look back to 1984 it seemed like a really big National Games. The opening ceremony was on an open running track with a small flame, which was ceremonial but was really important to us – it was all relative. Prince Charles opened the Games and it felt big at the time, but we didn’t realise the scale of things until 1988 and how big it had grown to that point. There was a massive difference between the two Games and in 1988 it felt more professional and more like the Olympics.”
Barcelona was Robinson’s most successful Paralympics in terms of performance, winning gold in the men’s class 3 team event with James Rawson and Phillip Evans and silver in the men’s class 3 singles, and is understandably the one that stands out in his memory.
“When you look at results leading into those Games, we weren’t one of the best teams and expected to win medals, so we made a big step forward during those Games,” he recalls. “We probably overachieved In Seoul - I lost the third/fourth place playoff in the singles but Arnie Chan and I won the bronze in the team event – beating Germany in the third/fourth place playoff who at that time were really good. But we certainly overachieved in Barcelona. In the team event we played Germany in the group stages and lost 3-0 pretty convincingly and we ended up playing them in the final and turned it around beating them 3-2 so we kind of grew during the tournament.”
Having retired from playing after the Paralympic Games in Beijing in 2008, Robinson was asked to help prepare the British Para table tennis players for the challenge of a home Games in London 2012 and he has since become an integral part of the British coaching team, supervising the day-to-day training of the Welsh players based in Cardiff. Tokyo is his third Paralympics as a coach, and he admits that the experience is quite different to that of an athlete.
“As a coach you feel completely responsible for the athlete,” he explained, “working with them to try and help them to achieve their goals – whatever those individual goals are – and ensure both in the lead up to the Games and during the Games that we try and facilitate a situation where they can feel good and perform at their best.
"It is challenging going from being an athlete where you are completely selfish and you look around and probably take a lot more in. As a coach you look at things in a different way and your focus is completely different – you are planning more and thinking about three or four people rather than one, trying to adapt to ensure each athlete that you are responsible for is able to play at their best. My goal here is to make sure I have a positive influence on the players; also, in a team environment to try and support the whole team if and when needed.”
Robinson is rightly proud that he has been a part of the Paralympic success story for nearly 40 years and has no intention of his contribution ending in Tokyo.
“I look back sometimes and find it incredible to have been around for you so long,” he admits. “I do feel a real sense of pride, not just to have competed but also to be able to give something back to the British team - I really do feel good about that. With a three-year cycle now to Paris I think I can go for one more and then become a spectator. If British Para Table Tennis still want me my hunger and desire are still there and I always feel that if I have got something to offer and contribute and if I can make a difference for the young players and the more experienced players that is what I am looking to do. If I can still make a positive difference to people, then I feel I’ve still got a part to play.”