By Greg Blood
Australian Paralympic Mob’s successful but extremely challenging Tokyo campaign has finished. Their journeys were well told by the media during the Games. It is worthwhile reflecting on their performances, funding and future development.
In a previous article, I outlined the Australian Government’s contribution to Tokyo 2020 Australian Olympic and Paralympic Teams.
Like the Australian Olympic Team, the Australian Paralympic Team’s preparation is heavily reliant on funding from the Australian Institute of Sport’s (AIS) allocations to national sports organisations and Paralympics Australia. In addition, state institutes/academies of sport support selected athletes.
Table 1- Australian Institute of Sport Investment Allocations to NSO’s
Source- AIS Investment Allocations to National Sports Organisations
It is estimated from this funding that 15% of AIS high performance funding to national sports organisations is directed towards Paralympic athletes.
In the May 2021 Federal Budget, an additional $3.5 million was granted to Paralympics Australia to prepare the Tokyo Team. The delayed Games due to COVID-19 resulted in increased expenditure due to training camps, Paralympic village requirements and hotel quarantine.
During the Games, there was newspaper and social media discussion around Paralympic medallists not receiving the same level of monetary rewards as Olympic medallists – $20,000 for gold, $15,00 for silver and $10,00 for bronze . This funding comes from Australian Olympic Committee not the Australian Government. Paralympics Australia noted it did not have the resources to provide these rewards. Prime Minister Morrison announced in Parliament that Paralympic medallists would be funded to the same level. for Tokyo 2020. The wording of the media release seemed to suggest that this may not be a long term Australian Government commitment.
Interestingly, Australian Olympic medallists have received these grants since 1996 Olympics and it has taken 25 years for equity to occur.
Medal Analysis Overall
Australia’s position on the medal table has been stable since 2004 Paralympics. At Tokyo it dropped from 5th to 8th on the gold medal table and 5th to 6th on total medal table.
Table 2 – Australian Paralympic Summer Medal Summary 2000 – 2020
Table 3 – Paralympic Games Summer Medal Analysis – Countries, Athletes & Events
Changes in the medal position since Sydney can be attributed to many more countries investing in Paralympic sport. China and Russia were not in the top five nations in Sydney 2000 but at Tokyo 2020 they finished 1st and 4th respectively. Russia was not allowed to compete at the 2016 Paralympics. Brazil and Japan rose on the medal table due to hosting recent Games. Brazil finished 7th with 22 gold as opposed to 8th and 14 gold at their home Games. Japan finished 11th with 13 gold as opposed to 64th in Rio and no gold.
The days of Australia finishing in the top five gold medal nations is likely to be difficult. Like the Olympics, finishing in the top ten should be the goal in terms of population size and funding levels.
Australia’s position on the medal table relies heavily on the three sports that offer the most medals – athletics (167 events), swimming (146 events) and cycling (51 events) at Tokyo 2020.
Table 4 – Australian Paralympic Swimming Team Medal Analysis
Table 5 – Australian Paralympic Athletics Team Medal Analysis
Table 5 – Australian Paralympic Cycling Team Medal Analysis
Source – Tables from Wikipedia – Athletics, Swimming and Cycling
As can be seen the number of medals in each of these sports have been stable since 2004. Sydney is an outlier due to home Games, small number of participating countries and more events for athletes with a disability.
At Tokyo 2020, boccia won its first medal since 1996 , taekwondo’s inaugural Games led to its first medal and table tennis achieved its greatest haul with two gold and four silver.
Repeat Gold Medallists at Tokyo 2020 from Rio 2016:
- James Turner (athletics), Vanessa Low (athletics for Germany), Curtis McGrath (canoeing), Lakeisha Patterson (swimming), Rachael Watson (swimming), Dylan Alcott (wheelchair tennis).
First time gold medallists at Tokyo 2020:
- Cycling – Paige Greco, Emily Petricola, Amanda Reid, Darren Hicks
- Athletics – Madison de Rozario
- Swimming – William Martin, Ben Popham, Ben Hance, Rowan Crothers
Number of first time medallists by sport at Tokyo 2020:
- Swimming – 18 athletes
- Athletics – 6 athletes
- Cycling – 4 athletes
- Table tennis – 3 athletes
- Boccia – 1 athlete
- Triathlon – 1 athlete
- Taekwondo – 1 athlete
84 athletes competed at their first Games.
In reviewing performances, I’m particularly interested in first time medallists as there is a strong likelihood they will participate and medal at future Games. Swimming has definitely regenerated their team with 18 new medallists and athletics and cycling have done a good job in regenerating their teams as well. Quota restrictions led to some promising athletes not being selected.
Overseas athletes contribution:
The transfer of four athletes from other countries assisted in the medal tally:.
- Vanessa Low (athletics from Germany 0- 1 Gold
- Lei Lina (table tennis from China) – 1 Gold, 1 Silver
- Qian Yang (table tennis from China) – 1 Gold, 1 Silver
- Ma Lin (table tennis from China) – 2 Silver
It was obvious in several post competition interviews that some athletes were disappointed in their results – they were striving for gold, a medal or a personal best. I liked the fact that they were immediately disappointed as it showed their very high expectations.
Before and during Tokyo 2020 we were alerted to the impact of COVID-19 on the team. This included:
- Closed international and state borders at times denied Australian Paralympians with access to international and national competitions and training camps for nearly 18 months. Rollers, Gliders and Steelers had limited competition and team training opportunities and this most likely impacted on their performances.
- Several athletes could not attend pre-Games training camps due to Queensland border closures.
- All athletes and staff were required to be vaccinated – this was recommended for Olympic athletes but not mandatory.
- Paralympic village was a strictly controlled environment and meals were brought in or cooked on site.
- Only flag bearers could participate in opening and closing ceremonies.
- Families and friends could not attend Tokyo 2020 – this might have been an issue for many athletes as they are often play an important role in their sport participation.
Despite these issues, it appears from the outside that the team was kept extremely safe and morale was high.
Australian Paralympic Mob
The Australian Paralympic Mob has been built upon since Rio 2016 and this has played a critical role in developing a strong and supportive team culture – this is important as athletes come from many parts of Australia, participate in individual and team sports and have a range of disabilities. This makes the team makeup complex but the Mob has been able develop synergies between athletes from different sports and disabilities.
I have been impressed on how the current team recognises past team members that were often the trailblazers in the Australian Paralympic movement. The love for “Uncle Kevin Coombs””, the first indigenous Paralympian was frequently on display.
Paralympic Games provide a wonderful vehicle for the telling of athletes with a disability journeys. We learn about their disability, how they have become involved in sport, their family and community support, what sport means to them and their aspirations to complete and succeed at the highest level. My previous article highlights the importance of storytelling.
Channel Seven’s coverage of Tokyo 2020 was extensive and prior to the Games they researched and collated the stories of many Paralympians – this was a highlight. The commentary – during and post events – provided great insights into the athletes and their journeys.
Many Paralympians unlike in the past are now used to working with the media and they were great expressing the role that sport plays in their lives and the support they receive. As Dylan Alcott frequently stated “sport saved my life”.
The Australian Paralympic Mob received greatly community support throughout the Games. This was aided by Channel Seven’s coverage and with many Australian’s living in lockdown. At the time of writing, Paralympics Australia ‘Buy Your Seat” Campaign” led to 94,110 Virtual Seats Purchased and $2,352,750 raised.
The Australian Paralympic Team has a strong foundation for future Games. There will be the need to have a ten year plan leading to Brisbane 2032 where there will be high expectations as in Sydney 2000. This plan will need to incorporate increased opportunities for participation, talent identification and development and expanded sports science and medicine services and research.
The cooperation between Paralympics Australia, national and state sports organisations, the AIS and state institutes/academies of sport and national and state disability sports organisations will be critical. I suggest that national and state sports disability organisations will require more funding for participation as it is here where many people with a disability are introduced to sport. The newly formed Australian Sporting Alliance for People with a Disability will play an important role.
The issue of classifications and inequity of events for certain higher disability classes was raised during the Games. This is definitely a work in progress for Paralympics Australia and the International Paralympic Committee. Australia has a few shining lights in the higher classes – Ahmed Kelly, Grant ‘Scooter’ Patterson and Dan Michel – all winning their first Paralympic medals but it would be great to see more athletes in the higher classes.
The lack of commercial sponsorship was highlighted through Paralympics Australia’s inability to reward those that won medals at Tokyo 2020. There is the need for Paralympics Australia and Paralympic athletes to be better supported by businesses – the same support as the Australian Olympic Committee and its athletes receive.
Since Sydney 2000, there has been increased coverage during the Paralympic Games. Like women’s sport, there is the need for the media to increase coverage outside the Games.
In conclusion, it is easy to forget that the Paralympic Games is just over 60 years old, Paralympics Australia was formed in 1990, it is only since Sydney 2000 that the Games have had joint Olympic/Paralympic Organising Committees and there has been increased funding. Many more countries now see the value of investing in Paralympic sport – this will increase its standard and depth and make medals more difficult to win.
Dylan Alcott, Madison de Rozario, Mr Impossible, Afghan athletes and a world of difference: The best moments of the Tokyo Paralympics, ABC, 6 September 2021
Dignity, Class And Performances To Remember At A Games Like No Other, Paralympics Australia, 5 September 2021
Australia at the 2020 Paralympic Games Wikipedia Article – detailed results