By Greg Blood and Tony Naar
The announcement of Dylan Alcott as 2022 Australian of the Year is a significant milestone. Alcott became the first Australian with a visible disability to be awarded this honour. Not only that, but Alcott is a Paralympian, the first to be honoured as Australian of the Year in the 62 years since the first Paralympic Games, in Rome, 1960.
Prior to 2022, fourteen sportspeople have been awarded Australian of the Year, five of them Olympians. Despite competing in smaller sports in Australia, Olympians John Sturrock (1962), Dawn Fraser (1964), Shane Gould (1972), Rob de Castella (1983) and Cathy Freeman (1998) had significant recognition due to the profile of the Olympics and Commonwealth Games.
Three Australian Paralympians have been recognised as the Young Australian of the Year – Peter Hill (1980), Deahnne McIntyre (1985) and Jacqueline Freeney (2014). Another thirteen sportspeople, some very high profile, have been recognised in this award. However, like its winners, the Young Australian of the Year award tends to generate much less attention than the Australian of the Year.
The selection of Alcott as Australian of the Year and his high profile has not come out of the blue. So, what have been the foundations that have led to Australian Paralympic athletes increasingly being seen as elite athletes, societal role models and advocates? As Alcott stated in his acceptance speech, there have been trailblazers who would have been worthy of this significant award:
“I also stand on the shoulders of giants, not literally, um, still can’t stand. But Paralympic athletes like Louise Sauvage, Kurt Fearnley, Danni Di Toro, people that are the reason that I got into sport, advocates like Stella Young, they paved the way so I can be here tonight.”
Taking Alcott’s cue, we thought it would be interesting to look at the perceptions of Australia’s Paralympians since the first team left our shores in 1960 and the role of the athletes and the movement in changing and shaping those perceptions over time.
The early years – cripples and freaks
With its team selected by the head of Australia’s first spinal unit and newspaper headlines such as “Bungling on Games: Cripples’ ordeal”, “Games for the brave” and “Cripples’ glamour at games”, it is obvious that Australia’s team at the first summer Paralympic Games in Rome were viewed in the context of their disability first and foremost. However, the athletes saw themselves differently and the team produced several leading trailblazers in the Australian Paralympic movement: Frank Ponta, Bill Mather-Brown, Kevin Coombs, Bruno Moretti and Daphne Ceeney went onto become lifelong contributors through coaching and administration. Coombs became a leader in the Victorian Koori community through his work in the health and justice systems.
The 1962 Commonwealth Paraplegic Games in Perth that preceded the 1962 British Empire and Commonwealth Games introduced Paralympic athletes to a wider Australian audience. Prior to this event, only those involved in disability sport would have been aware of Paralympic athletes and their sports events. However, even in 1979, when Paralympic gold medallist Pauline English swam across Sydney Harbour with English Channel swimmer Des Renford to raise money for a sports stadium, a Sydney newspaper headline announced: “Crippled girl swims the harbour“.
Paralympians become ‘athletes’
The summer Paralympic Games expanded to include events beyond wheelchair sports with the 1976 Summer Paralympics in Toronto including events for amputee and vision impaired athletes. That year, Tracey Freeman became the first athlete with a disability to win the Brisbane Courier-Mail’s Sportswoman of the Year award, following her performance as the most successful athlete at the 1976 Paralympics.
The establishment of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in 1981 in Canberra led to Paralympic athletes using its facilities and services for national training camps. In 1988, the AIS offered its first scholarship to an athlete with a disability – vision impaired athletics thrower Russell Short. It was a far cry from equality but it was recognition of the elite athletic performance of Paralympic athletes.
The decision to hold the 1988 Summer Paralympics in Seoul after the Summer Olympics increased the profile of the Australian Paralympic team and the ABC sent a film crew to cover the Games, a first for the Paralympics. At those Games, shooter Libby Kosmala won three gold medals after her four in the previous Games, shooting scores that were competitive with able-bodied shooters.
When Louise Sauvage came on the scene in 1992 at the Barcelona Paralympics, Australia seemed ready to cheer for and acknowledge her dominance as an athlete. In 2010, six years after her retirement, research conducted for the Australian Paralympic Committee found that Sauvage still had by far the highest recognition of any Australian Paralympian.
The establishment of the Australian Paralympic Federation (now Paralympics Australia) in 1990 led to a more coordinated approach to high performance disability sport in Australia. AIS residential and camps-based scholarships were offered to a greater number of athletes in athletics, swimming, cycling and alpine skiing.
The awarding to Sydney the rights to host the 2000 Summer Olympics and Paralympics in 1993 led to the Australian Government funding the Paralympic Preparation Program in the six years lead up to Paralympics – this funding led to the Australian team finishing first on the medal tally in Sydney.
The 2000 Summer Paralympics in Sydney was a critical foundation in the Australian Paralympic movement as many Australians witnessed Paralympic sport live for the first time at Sydney venues or in their lounge rooms. It briefly increased the profile of athletes like Amy Winters, Neil Fuller, Siobhan Paton, David Hall and Tim Sullivan just to name a few. However, after the Games the spotlight moved on and the 2004 Games – covered by SBS – attracted much less attention.
Quiet achievers – a wider role but a lower profile
Some of Australia’s most successful Paralympians were ‘quiet’ leaders in other fields, without gaining the recognition that their achievements may have warranted.
Vic Renalson dominated men’s weightlifting at four Paralympic Games from 1964 to 1976, in addition to winning six medals in athletics. Even while competing, he coached Olympic and Paralympic athletes and is credited with being one of the first athletics coaches in Australia to recognise the importance of weight training to performance in the sport.
In 2006, Katrina Webb joined Roger Federer, Chilean soccer star Elias Figueroa and others to address the United Nations to mark the completion of the International Year of Sport and Physical Education.
In 2004, shooter Ashley Adams’ silver medal score in the final of the men’s 50m prone rifle event at the Athens Paralympics would have placed him sixth at the Olympics a month earlier, ten places above Australia’s representative. In 2008, Adams was recognised for his pioneering work on his 64,000 acre farm for breeding cattle genetically predisposed to producing tender beef, by being named as that year’s Rabobank Queensland Beef Producer of the Year. Yet few people outside the worlds of Paralympic sport or beef production would ever have heard of Adams.
By any measure, a number of Australian Paralympians were not only achieving at the highest levels in their sport but were also making significant contributions to the community in wider fields.
The supercrip – ‘stunts’ that get attention
In 1992 Michael Milton became Australia’s first Paralympic or Olympic winter gold medallist. His four gold medals from four events at the 2002 Winter Paralympics in Salt Lake City highlighted that Paralympic athletes were just as good on snow as they were at the summer Games. Australian Government financial support for Paralympic athletes was increased through strong lobbying and their international performances. National sports organisations took responsibility for managing their Paralympic athletes and where possible national competitions incorporated Olympic and Paralympic events on the same program.
However, Milton became possibly better known for his efforts in climbing Mt Kilimanjaro and breaking the all-comers Australian skiing speed record than for his unparalleled achievements as a Paralympian.
Similarly, Kurt Fearnley, one of the world’s premier wheelchair racers, came to the attention of Australians when he crawled the length of the Kokoda Track in PNG in 2009, the same year he was named Young Australian of the Year for New South Wales.
Blind runner and goalballer Gerrard Gosens attempted to climb Everest and then became famous around Australia as a contestant on “Dancing with the Stars”.
Karni Liddell is a Paralympian who transcended Paralympic sport when her 2014 TED Talk on society’s desire for “a healthy baby” was viewed hundreds of thousands of times. Liddell has regularly appeared on Brisbane radio, is a sought-after speaker and is a fierce advocate for the rights of people with a disability. Despite her impressive CV, much of her Wikipedia listing is taken up with information about her posing for a body paint calendar in the lead-up to the 2000 Paralympics.
For a while, it seemed that the best way for a Paralympian to be recognised in Australia was to do something out of the ordinary – almost a ‘stunt’ – that would attract more attention than their Paralympic achievements. This fed into the idea of the Paralympian as a ‘supercrip’ but was hardly relatable for the average person with a disability.
Advocacy and wider recognition
Each Summer and Winter Paralympics post Sydney has led to greater media and television coverage of national and international Paralympic events and increased the profile of many athletes. Two retired Paralympic athletes have been voted into parliament by their local communities:
Matthew Cowdrey, Australia’s leading Paralympic medallist, enjoyed a high profile in his home state of South Australia, having an aquatic centre named after him and playing a leading role on Australia’s Commonwealth Games teams. Cowdrey subsequently entered politics and is currently the Member for Colton in the South Australian Parliament.
Liesl Tesch, who always sought to deny stereotypes throughout her sporting career, also entered politics and is the Member for Gosford in the NSW Legislative Assembly.
After dipping its toes in the water at the Rio Games in 2016, at the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo Channel Seven provided the most extensive broadcast coverage to date through free to air and streaming – every event could be viewed live.
The availability of a commercial network platform and the on-air performances of people such as Dylan Alcott, Kurt Fearnley, Ellie Cole, Ryley Batt, Madison de Rozario have given them the same opportunities that have long existed to able-bodied athletes to connect with the wider community. A number of them have used these opportunities to advocate not just for Paralympic sport, but also for the wider disability community.
A noticeable change in this era is that Paralympic athletes are being recognised beyond their sporting achievements – people such as those mentioned in this article and many others not mentioned are now recognised for achieving in education and employment, selection on boards and committees, media hosting or through their advocacy of disability and other issues.
Many Australian Paralympic athletes now have the confidence to talk both their sporting journey but also important societal disability issues. Many have established foundations and programs to improve opportunities for those with a disability. Our volunteer work with the Australian Paralympic History Project has highlighted Paralympians from other eras were strong advocates on disability issues but did not receive the current media or public attention.
One of the themes that you will hear or read during Dylan Alcott’s year as Australian of the Year will be about increasing opportunities for people with a disability. The funding of disability sport by Australian and State governments has given many with a disability opportunities to participate in sport and compete on the world stage and obtain life skills along the way that often provide opportunities post their sporting career.
Not everyone with a disability may want to participate in sport but they should be given suitable opportunities that improve their quality of life.
Tony Naar initiated the Australian Paralympic History Project whilst employed as a senior manager at Paralympics Australia and has continued to volunteer with the Project. Greg Blood became involved with the Project as a volunteer after a long career with the National Sport Information Centre.