Rio Paralympics are a showcase of developments in medicine

Originally pubkished in The Roar, 29 August 2016.

The Paralympic Games are widely regarded as the second largest sporting event in the world. They are also a showcase of developments in medicine, science, and inclusion.

You are unlikely to see many athletes with poliomyelitis (polio) at the Rio Paralympics but this has not always been the case.

Several months ago I met three of Australia’s early Paralympians – Elizabeth Edmondson, Lyn Lillecrapp and Julie Russell. The thing that struck me was that they were all survivors of the polio epidemic that hit the world including Australia in the 1940s and 1950s.

At its peak around 10,000 Australian children a year came down with polio. A polio vaccine was developed by Joseph Salk and there has been mass vaccination against polio in Australia since 1956. The vaccine has spared millions of children from the ravages of polio. Australia was declared free of polio by the World Health Organisation in 2000.

Sport was recommended to children and adolescents with polio as part of their rehabilitation. Several of these children and adolescents have gone on to represent Australia at the Paralympics since the first Games in 1960.

Who have been some of Australia’s Paralympians with polio?

Elizabeth Edmondson (born 1950) was diagnosed with polio at the age of fifteen months. She swam at two Paralympics (1964-1968) winning five golds and one silver and attended the 1964 Games as a 14 year old.

Tracy Freeman (born 1948) won six gold and four silver medals in athletics at two Paralympics (1972-1976). She became a quadriplegic at the age of two due to polio.

Gary Hooper (born 1939) contracted polio at the age of 11 and lost the use of both legs. He won two gold and four silver medals at three Paralympics (1960-1968).Advertisement

Lyn Lillecrapp (born 1945) contracted polio at two months. Her swimming career started later in life and she attended three Paralympics (1976, 1988, 1992) winning three silver and three bronze medals.

John Martin (born 1943) contracted polio at the age of 18. He attended five Paralympics (1964-1980) winning silver medals in archery and athletics.

Bill Mather-Brown (born 1936) contracted polio at the age of two. He attended three Paralympics (1960-1968) winning silver medals in athletics and table tennis.

Julie Russell (born 1951) contracted polio at sixteen months. She attended five Paralympics (1980-2000) and won five silver and three bronze medals in athletics. She also competed in wheelchair basketball and powerlifting.

Michael Dow contracted polio at the age of five and won two gold medals in swimming at the 1964 Paralympics.

Stan Kosmala (born 1950) contracted polio at the age of two and went to three Paralympics (1976, 1988, and 2000) and he won a gold medal in lawn bowls at the 1988 Paralympics.

Ron Finneran (born 1944) has spina bifida after contracting polio at the age of 18 months. He unofficially competed at the 1976 Winter Paralympics. He attended the Games but there was no event for his disability. He was largely responsible for establishing Disabled Winter Sport Australia

Sport has played an important part in their lives and the Paralympics allowed them to represent Australia. Several of these athletes took up sport seriously in their youth and others later in life. Elizabeth Edmondson and Lyn Lillecrapp are still active in masters swimming.Advertisement

Edmondson highlighted the importance of swimming to her life by saying “Swimming allowed me to move through the water with a certain amount of grace and my disability seemed to disappear in the dimensions of the pool. It got me physically fit, which was a big plus. I enjoyed the competition, the travel and most of all people I met became firm friends. Sport has meant a great deal to me.”

There are small sections of Australian society against childhood immunisation. I think the Paralympians mentioned above would have loved to have been immunised against polio.

Maybe if they had been immunised they would have represented Australia at the Olympics. While polio has been eradicated in Australia there are still pockets in the world.

In watching the Paralympics in the coming weeks please consider how athletes might have acquired their disability – congenitial, illness, disease or by accident and how medicine and science has assisted their rehabilitation and mobility. Sport with medical interventions is a very important part of their rehabilitation.

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