This week we say a sad farewell to our President and former Chairman, Bernard Atha CBE who died recently aged 94.
A modest and private man, Bernard Atha never sought recognition for his work. He dedicated over 65 years of his life to sport for disabled people and in particular, people with intellectual disability (learning disability) across the world. Through his entire working career, Bernard has been a tireless advocate for equality, equity, justice and inclusion of people with intellectual disability.
A founding member of the UK Sports Association for People with Learning Disability (UKSA), Bernard remained President until his passing and Chair from 1979 until just a few years ago. A founding member also of Inas (now Virtus) Bernard was one of the early visionaries, recognising the potential of athletes with intellectual disability and dedicating all that he did to encourage and sometimes force change to enable athletes to excel.
As one of the very early Chairman of the International Coordinating Committee of Disability Sports Organisations, a pre-cursor to the formation of the IPC, Bernard Atha served as its Chair and was involved in the creation of the International Paralympic Committee in 1989.
1989 also saw the formation of the British Paralympic Association with Bernard Atha appointed as its first Chairman. Leading the organisation in its early years and establishing strong foundations for its future, he remained as Chair until 1997.
Throughout the 1990’s as President of Inas (now Virtus), Bernard led the organisation on a formidable journey seeing the 1992 Paralympic Games in Madrid showcase learning disability sport for the first time. This signified the modest, yet significant beginnings of a worldwide movement representing athletes with intellectual disability. Post Madrid a difficult period in Inas history, Bernard continued the drive forward to ensure athletes with intellectual disability were not left behind. Whilst Bernard’s Presidency of Inas ended in 1993, he remained actively involved and continued through various roles to advocate inclusion in the Paralympic movement. Bernard campaigned, influenced and lobbied to ensure inclusion was achieved in the 1996 Atlanta and 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games.
Despite the setback of the Paralympic ban after the Sydney Games, Bernard rallied the troops and demonstrated his advocacy skills and tenacity in political circles as he sustained an active campaign, aired unpopular views and remained undeterred in his vision for athletes. His work contributed significantly to the re-inclusion of athletes with intellectual impairment in the London 2012 Games, marking a new era for this group of athletes.
Other positions held by Bernard Atha included Vice Chair of the Sports Council 1976-1980; Vice Chair EU Committee for Sport for the disabled 1992-1999 and Chairman English Federation of Disability Sport 1999-2008.
Bernard was a politician, leader, sportsman, advocate, barrister, teacher, dancer, author and actor and through his colourful career which spans so many sectors has influenced many and left his mark wherever he went.
He was appointed as a Leeds City Councillor in 1957 and Lord Mayor of Leeds for 2000 to 2001. His acting career saw him appear in a number of films, most notably in Ken Loach’s iconic 1969 film, Kes. His TV appearances included roles in All Creatures Great and Small, Sherlock Holmes, Coronation Street, Emmerdale and Last of the Summer Wine.
Tracey McCillen, Chief Executive UK Sports Association said
‘It is difficult to do justice to such a formidable career and incredible man. I have had the privilege of knowing Bernard for over 30 years. In every conversation I learned something new about him or from him.’
‘Bernard was one of those people I thought would go on forever. I owe a lot to him. He was my Chairman, my mentor and my friend. He has supported me personally and professionally and I will always be grateful for that. I will miss his wisdom, honestly and fabulous sense of humour. A truly remarkable man, whose legacy will go on for generations.”
Genevieve Gordon Thomson, Chair UK Sports Association said
‘It is with sadness that we learned of the passing of Bernard Atha our President. I give thanks for the tireless work Bernard undertook during his time in intellectual impairment sport and further afield in sport more generally. Much of Bernards work is reflected in where we and our athletes are today.”
“Personally I will remember Bernards continuous warmth, charming and honest character and his kind words when I took on the role of Chair of UKSA. He simply said to me ‘Just keep trying Gen, bit by bit we break the barriers down’. His words to me represent him and what he stood for – continuance in adversity. On behalf of the UKSA family our sincere condolences go to Bernard’s family. We will miss him greatly.”
Bernard received an OBE in the 1991 New Year Honours for ‘services to Sport, particularly Sport for the Disabled’ and in 2007 appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 2007 Birthday Honours for ‘services to the Arts and to the community in Leeds’. He was honoured for his lifetime achievements and inducted into the Virtus Hall of Fame in 2015.
Bernard is respected worldwide through his work, his leadership and dedication. He was known for his engaging ways, fearless approach, passion, enthusiasm and wise words. It is a testimony to the man he was that even those that opposed some of the views he expressed, respected the man, the work, the vision and the commitment.
The UK Sports Association extends its condolences to Bernards family and friends at this very sad time and to all the organisations across the UK and the world who have lost an advocate and friend.
Rest in Peace Bernard, and thank you.
Bernard passed away peacefully on 22nd October and will be laid to rest in his home town of Leeds on 10thNovember.