Importance of the Paralympic Games: Highlighting the Journeys of Athletes with a Disability

By Greg Blood

During the next two weeks we will hear or read about the journeys of many Paralympic athletes. These journeys about striving for excellence in their sport and overcoming challenges along the way.

I worked at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) for nearly thirty years and during this period, I realised that sport was a great vehicle in highlighting an individual’s journey through life. These life journeys are not restricted to sport but many in the community have a love of sport and can relate to them.

Whilst working at the AIS, I was privileged to work with many athletes and observe their sporting and personal development.  I still remember vision impaired Russell Short, the first  athlete with a disability to be offered an AIS athletics scholarship in 1988. He was followed by amputee athletes like David ‘ Clock’ Evans and deaf Olympic decathlete Dean Barton -Smith.  A young cerebral palsy athlete Hamish MacDonald came from Alice Springs in the early 1990’s. In the lead up to the Sydney Olympics, I supervised athlete trainee Lisa Llorens and this gave me insights into athletes with autism. Besides the athletes living in Canberra or onsite, there were numerous camps involving Paralympic athletes.

By working with, talking to, reading about and observing Paralympic athletes, I quickly realised that they had the same sporting aspirations and commitment as able-bodied athletes. They aspire to be best in the world in their disability class.

After retiring from the National Sport Information Centre in 2011, Tony Naar from Paralympics Australia invited me to become involved in their fledgling history project particularly from the Wikipedia component. I had seen how Wikipedia was becoming an important information source particularly for areas outside mainstream media or traditional knowledge.

Paralympics Australia Wikipedia project starting point was the 1960 Rome Paralympics. To be honest, my understating of the Paralympics was from the 1988 Seoul Paralympics – the first Games where there was a closer relationship with the Summer Olympics.  I had no knowledge of how the Paralympic movement started in Australia and who were the trailblazers in terms of athletes, coaches and administrators.

What have I learnt over the last ten years?

In the early Paralympics, it was based around wheelchair athletes and several had been impacted by polio, birth defects and result of accidents.  Sport for these athletes was an important part of their rehabilitation and socialisation. I met Elizabeth Edmondson who contracted polio at the 15 months and went on win 3 gold medals in swimming at 1964 Tokyo Paralympics – at the age of 14 years & 4 months.

I came across Kevin Coombs, who attended the 1960 Rome Paralympics as a wheelchair basketballer. Coombs was the first Indigenous Australian to represent Australia at the Paralympics. His disability was not congenital or the result of disease but an accident – at the age of 12 he was accidentally shot in the back whilst out shooting rabbits. Amanda Smith on ABC’s Sporty recently interviewed Elizabeth and Kevin as well as Bill Mather-Brown, who had polio and also competed in 1960

In researching Australian Paralympians for their Wikipedia articles, I found many causes of their disability. A few examples of the 2020 Team are –

Missing from thist list is polio but several earlier Australian Paralympians contracted this disease in the 1950’s. Thankfully a vacine has helped to edadicate this disease in the developed world.

Athletes with these disabilities have acquired them at birth, adolescence or adulthood. Sport for the majority of them was part of their rehabilitation or physical development from the start and it has often led to many aspiring to be the best in their sport in their disability class.

Whilst the Australian and State Governments through the AIS and state institute/academies of sport have significantly increased support to Australian Paralympians since the Sydney Games, their journey has usually relied heavily of family, friends, teachers, coaches and the local community.  It is these people and communities that give them the encouragement and support to become involved in sport and progress to the highest level – the Paralympic Games.

One of the first detailed Paralympic journeys I came across was Kurt Fearnley through his autography – Pushing the Limits: Life, Marathons & Kokoda.  The importance of the small New South Wales town Carcoar left an indelible mark on me. He said:

The town had got together and raised $10,000 and they bought the chair and they … paid for the trip and they said if he needs anything else you know we’re going to make sure that he … gets that opportunity. So it’s a town of 200 people within a week had had 10 grand sitting there, so it was it’s nice now that I know that Carcoar have this … bond I guess, or they know that they’re the reason that I’m here.

More recently I have a good relationship with distance runner Michael Roeger working at the Clearinghouse for Sport and I constantly read about the support and recognition he receives from his small South Australian home town Langhorne Creek.  There are numerous similar stories of community support for Australian Paralympians.

Debutant Jamieson Leeson, a boccia player, career has been supported by rugby league’s Men of League Foundation that provided her family with a customised van with specialist wheelchair lift to help her daily transport.

I have observed first-hand the commitment of two athletics coaches to the Paralympics athletes. Firstly, Chris Nunn, employed as the first Paralympic coach based at the AIS in Canberra. Nunn broke down many barriers at the AIS in the early 1990’s to ensure that Paralympic athletes received equal support throughout the AIS. He has been followed by Iryna Dvoskina ,also located at the AIS, who has helped take Paralympic coaching and training to another level in Australia.

Remember – it is important to focus on ability not the disability of our athletes during the Tokyo Paralympics, as well as to appreciate the journey that has led them to this point.

The Wikipedia article – Australia at the 2020 Summer Paralympics – provides links to the athlete journeys of the 2020 Australian Team.

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