Andy Gemmell has been blind his entire life but he’s never let it stop him enjoying his passions. During his time he has travelled the world, many times over, following the England Cricket team and visiting some of the world’s most famous racing tracks. He’s one of the biggest sports fans you’re ever likely to come across. He’s been to an unbelievable amount of places and seen an incredible number of major sporting events. And yes, as he says, he has ‘seen’ them – being blind has clearly never prevented him doing that.
With the Cheltenham Festival coming up this week we thought it would be a good time to share with you what he told us when we met up with him a few weeks ago.
Hi Andy, I know you’re a big sports fan but just how far have you gone to follow sport?
I’ve been around the world for cricket many times. I also travel around the world to watch horse racing and to see football. I’ve been to New Zealand three times, I’ve been to the West Indies four times and I went down to Germany for the Football World Cup in 2006. I just generally travel.
How did you become so passionate about sport?
I’ve always enjoyed sport. I’ve always followed sport intensely and have a big knowledge of it. Cricket was the first thing I ever followed. My dad used to take me to kid’s test matches and then I gradually got into it more and more. Now I’m a life member of MCC and I have my own spot at Lord’s. It’s a big thing really.
But my great love, even more than cricket now I think, is racing. I’ve been to America for the Kentucky Derby. I go to horse racing in France regularly, to the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe – I’ve been there about 6 or 7 times.
It must be quite daunting doing that. How do you manage to travel around?
I started out following the England Cricket team and, the first few times, I went with an organised tour party. There are these Gulliver’s sports tours that organise trips with test match packages.
The first time I went was in 1982. I went to Australia on my own and I didn’t know anybody on the trip at all. I’ve been seventeen times now.
I’ve made so many good mates out there who’ll meet me and I’ve always had people to go with me. I base myself in Melbourne and I fly down to Adelaide, Sydney or wherever.
Since 1982, I’ve only missed one Ashes series in Australia. Two of them, I’ve done totally – the whole series – and other times I’ve just been to three tests or four tests. I’ve been to out to watch more cricket there but I’ve also been to six Melbourne cups, lots of horse racing.
You said you’re more into racing now than Cricket, what are your most memorable experiences in racing?
I went out to Dubai for the World Cup racing which was really interesting. I’m glad I went out for racing because there wasn’t a great deal else to do out there.
Then there’s the Kentucky Derby, which was great. I was with someone there. I think it could have been a bit tricky if I hadn’t been. There are 150,000 people and also the racecourse is in quite a rough area. It would have been interesting if I’d been on my own for that.
To get to the course you have to go down to this run down area and people were trying to give you little rides on buggies and you could tell they were making sure they were looking after their own pay packet. It was great fun though. It made part of the day. It just wouldn’t have been all right to be on your own there I don’t think.
Yeah. I think I might have been in a bit of trouble there! It was great fun though. It made it, you know?
Cheltenham’s coming up this week. Will you be there and what’s it like?
I’ll be doing all four days. Cheltenham’s great, they can hold about 65,000 people there. At Ascot you can get 80,000 in at a push. Australia has slightly more open spaces and a slightly bigger area. I think the Melbourne Cup has about 100,000 people and the atmosphere is great. But you can’t beat some of the British courses – Cheltenham and Ascot are great.
You’ve also owned horses in the past haven’t you?
Yeah, I’ve owned four horses in my time. They best one I’ve had unfortunately dropped dead this year, which was a disaster. She was galloping brilliantly, we were set to start the season, we were aiming for Cheltenham actually, and then she just came out the stables one day and dropped dead from a heart attack.
It was sad because I really thought we had some potential. I’d turned down money for her, as well, a few weeks earlier. But that’s just one of those things – it was my decision. I’ve still got shares in about eight different horses and one in Australia too. I love it.
When you’re out at a sporting event, how do you follow what’s going on?
For test matches it’s easy because it’s on the radio. I just take my radio with me. With horse racing you actually get the live commentary on the course and I’m alright with that too.
When I’m in England, I go to the football every week at West Ham. They do actually provide a commentary there but I prefer not to have that. I’ve got my own friend who commentates to me in the stands. That means I’m not cut off from the atmosphere.
I know that the club have got headphone facilities if I wanted them but I don’t. I’ve been going to West Ham for thirty-odd years now and I’ve always had a friend who will commentate to me. It’s a bit more personal.
Is it easy to get around the stadiums you go to?
I always have somebody with me. At Lord’s I know my way around by myself now. I can do that myself without any help at all. But everywhere else I obviously have to have somebody to guide me. Usually, in Australia, I’m with my friends and they’ll take me, or whoever else – somebody on one of those tour parties, a tour leader or one of the members of the group would take me. There’s always somebody to guide me to my seat.
They’re really helpful at Ascot. As long as my mate’s got his top hat on and is dressed appropriately, they can get in as my guide for nothing because I’m a member of the Royal Enclosure there.
Do you have to wear a top hat too or do they let you off because you’re blind?
No, no. I can’t get away with that. It’s like at Lord’s – if you’re in the Pavilion then you must have your tie on. There’s absolutely no nonsense about that!
The racing, cricket and football must take up a lot of time. Do you go and see other sports too?
I’ve been to the Australian Open tennis a few times. They’ve got a commentary hook system there so I can get commentary when I go there. It’s quite good. That’s something I don’t think Wimbledon really has yet. They’re getting better at it.
Did you know that at Wimbledon, they just tell disabled people to go to the wheelchair tennis?
Well that’s outrageous. I know they have a radio station there which you can buy a headset for and listen to. But if you’re on a smaller court then you’re stuffed.
More and more events are providing headsets. I went to the Open Golf a couple of years ago and they now have a radio which you can take around with you. Although I actually found that with Five Live I was just as well off.
You’ve never gone for all blind/disabled tours then?
No. I always go on my own. I try and avoid blind specific groups. I always avoid that.
I fully respect everybody who does all of that and I think that’s brilliant but I like to do it myself. I’ve always managed.
To be honest, it’s not something I really want to be part of. I go because it’s something I enjoy not because I want to be part of a blind group going to it. I’m just an enthusiast going to the games.
There is a backstop at West Ham in case my mate was ill but I’ve got other friends who would do the job, rather than me have to go into the headphone enclosure which is something I don’t want to do. It’s nice to know it’s there but I pay for my season ticket and I like to be where I am. I don’t want to be told where to go.
What’s the greatest sporting event you’ve been to?
The best thing I ever saw was last summer, in London, at the Olympic Stadium. I was there for the last night of the Athletics. Mo Farah won gold in the 5,000 metres and then there was the 400x100m final with Jamaica and Usain Bolt and everything. It was just incredible and as part of the crowd you felt so involved in what was happening. It was the best sporting moment I’ve ever been lucky enough to be part of.
Have your exploits led to you meeting anyone involved in the sports?
I know jockeys certainly and when I first when on the cricket tours, they used to have players on them who the travel company were putting on them to try and sell the tour. My first trip in ‘82 was associated with Bob Willis who was the England captain at the time. You got to meet all the players – Gower, Botham and all those – and I got to know them.
I’ve met commentators too. I met Brian Johnson when he was going strong. I’ve met Aggy briefly and Richie Benaud.
I go so often, I get to meet some of them and some of them occasionally still know me. They will chat to me when they see me and it’s great. I love it.
You do so much, how do you manage to fit it all in?
I just like to get about. I love travelling. I feel really comfortable doing it in Australia particularly. When I’m out there walking on my own I can get about. It’s good there because there are no language problems so I don’t feel like I need to know anything.
I go to a lot of wineries when I’m abroad and I go to heaps and heaps of gigs too. I got back from Australia in November and the next day I went down to see the Stones at the O2. I go to loads of gigs, I always have always do.
Seriously, how do you find time to do all of this?
Oh I manage. Don’t you worry about that. I manage.