Paralympians Join the Mainstream – Australian Paralympic Committee Brings in Reform Across Sport

History of Australian Sport Policy Series:  Part 23

By Greg Hartung AO

“Mainstreaming” was a fundamental and necessary policy reform on the long journey to win durable outcomes for athletes with a disability and the Paralympic movement. 

Designed and promoted by the Australian Paralympic Committee (APC) in the period before and after the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games, it was a position accepted by disability sport organisations and eventually endorsed by government. The Australian Sports Commission (ASC) also came on board with this fundamental shift in Australian sport policy and adapted the principles of mainstreaming to its own structures and programs.

The Australian initiative attracted the interest and approval of the International Paralympic Committee. The Australian model was viewed as a way to change entrenched public and political attitudes toward disability sport and ensure that Paralympic athletes gained greater access to the opportunities and services afforded their able-bodied counterparts. It was seen as an important and pragmatic step toward levelling the playing field.      

Significant reform – especially in areas where practices and approaches have a long history – rarely comes easily.  In developing and prosecuting the case, the APC understood there would be several hurdles to jump which would test both the APC and the disability sports, as well as the national sport federations. For the national federations (NF’s), even for those with a genuine intent to be inclusive, there were substantial questions relating to their own funding and capacity to deliver for a new cohort of athletes. There was also the considerable challenge of gaining an understanding of those elements unique to Paralympic sport including the athlete classification system.

For the APC leadership, the challenges were different but no less significant. Foremost was the acceptance that if Paralympic sport was to advance to a new era the APC itself had to change and to open itself up to a wider membership base.  This was the only meaningful and structural way to move Paralympic sport from the fringes to the mainstream.

Mainstreaming – Cut Through

While the mainstreaming of disabled athletes into generic sporting bodies now seems logical and sensible, it did not come without a protracted debate and not a little arm twisting.  Several politicians had talked about the subject – or at least a version of it – with little real momentum to change attitudes and program delivery. Even the government’s own sports delivery agency, the Australian Sports Commission (ASC), was slow to lock in with the concept, at least initially.  Like the NFs, the ASC had to consider the financial implications of treating athletes with a disability or Paralympians in the same way as Olympians – and fund them accordingly.  The APC was patient in its approach. Slowly the wheels of change turned to a more equitable and enlightened approach.

The APC made several approaches to its membership at successive annual meetings during the late 1990s seeking their agreement to allow the organisation to broaden its membership base to include able-bodied sports organisations.  To the frustration of the APC Board, attempts to make the necessary constitutional amendments had been rebuffed. The seven-strong APC membership base was made up of the National Sporting Organisations for the Disabled (NSOD’s). They were the members, and “owners”, of the APC:  Australian Sports Organisation for the Disabled, Australian Blind Sports Federation, Disabled WinterSport Australia, Australian Sport and Recreation Association for People with an Intellectual Disability (AUSRAPID), Wheelchair Sports Australia, Cerebral Palsy – Australian Sport and Recreation Federation of Australia, Riding for the Disabled Australia.  These organisations needed to be in alignment with the APC Board for the first hurdle to be cleared.

It was obvious that the expansion of the membership to include the larger, more developed and financially sound, generic National Federations would reduce the authority and power of the NSODs themselves. For several NSOD members a constitutional change to open the APC to a wider base would effectively render them minority shareholders in their own organisation. Despite the potential upside of constitutional change, it was still going to require a leap of faith. The members were justifiably cautious.

It was equally clear that the NSOD’s, for the most part, simply did not have the financial reserves and organisation capacity to deliver the level of services to their athletes comparable to those available to Olympic athletes through their NF’s. The APC leadership understood that to level the playing field and reduce the disadvantage to Paralympic athletes, it needed to build the bridge with the NFs. It had concluded that all relevant NFs needed to be invited ‘inside the tent’ which meant becoming members of the APC with resultant obligations to genuinely accommodate athletes with a disability.  Mainstreaming was double edged. In order to go forward the APC needed to become inclusive itself and less isolated.

Responses from disability groups varied from mild interest to hostility toward the notion.  For the APC it was always about a trade off with the NF’s: membership in return for demonstrated sport program delivery for Paralympic athletes. Underpinning the discussion were the fundamental principles of fairness and equality. The objective was to deliver the same opportunities for Paralympic athletes to shine just as much as Olympic athletes.

APC pushes the agenda  

Not for the first time, the APC placed ‘mainstreaming’ on the agenda for discussion at the December 1999 annual general meeting in Sydney.  No definitive decision by the membership was taken at that meeting, for or against, but it was decided to take the strategic step of enlisting someone from outside the APC Board or staff to look further into the concept and report back to the members and the APC Board.

The person tasked with the job, on behalf of the seven members, was Susan Cusack, the National Executive Director of the APC member, Riding for the Disabled (RDA).  It was her appointment that gave the members a degree of comfort that their interests would be protected. Cusack was one of them.  The timing of the Cusack review was important coming on the eve of the 2000 Paralympic Games when interest in Paralympic sport in Australia was on a high.

The report was delivered the following year and articulated the case for reform:

“Internationally, and within Australia, there has been a shift in emphasis towards ‘sport’ being the primary aspect of Paralympic endeavour, rather than ‘disability’.  Paralympic athletes are promoted and seen as high-performance sportsmen and sportswomen, not as people with a disability who happen to do sport.

“Within the NSOD’s that have traditionally been the advocates and mentors of athletes with disabilities, there has been a recognition that for such athletes to achieve their full potential they must have access to the most professional and highly qualified coaches within their generic sports organisations.” (Ref 1)

Cusack explained the argument from the APC perspective: “The APC over the past three years has emerged from difficult times to become recognised by its current members and other interested stakeholders, as an organisation which is performing at a professional standard and servicing the athletes under its programs in a highly satisfactory manner. This is through ongoing and continual consultation with NSOD’s and NSO’s from when the athletes come, and the quality of the high-performance managers of the APC.”

The Cusack paper observed that Tennis, Swimming, Athletics and Basketball had shown interest in advancing the inclusion of people with disabilities into their mainstream at both the participation and high-performance levels.  Other sports such as Cycling, Yachting, Shooting, Judo and Volleyball were underway but not as advanced in their planning. Other Paralympic sports such as Goalball and Boccia did not have an able-bodied equivalent. 

Cusack canvassed options from maintaining the current status quo with respect to APC membership — where national federations were given no vote under the Constitution — to opening up the APC to include the national federations as full voting members, subject to their demonstrating bone fide commitment to mainstreaming.  The latter was in alignment with the long-held position of the APC Board. 

Cusack was frank, however, in forewarning that the inclusion of generic sporting organisations as equal members of the APC would mean that the existing members “would see their influence on the Paralympic sport area reduced and feel loss of power, influence and status.” She said that the APC would become dominated by generic national sporting organisations rather than the traditional stakeholder NSOD’s.

Sydney 2000 Games interlude

The Cusack report and the mainstreaming concept “sat on the table” for some months while the nation enjoyed the spectacular success of the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games at which the athleticism of the Paralympic athletes captured, and informed, a nationwide audience. The Sydney Morning Herald ran a story during the Games, on 21 October 2000, under the headline “Mainstreaming – the Paralympic movement’s hot debate in the making” and quoting APC President, Greg Hartung: “The most powerful argument is the administrative efficiencies it brings. It is also humanitarian and inclusive. It distinguishes Australia as a modern, progressive country.”  (Ref 2 )

The Games were a key turning point in the mainstreaming journey.  It led to the APC Board endorsing a policy and strategy to again push for a fundamental change to the delivery Paralympic sport to take to the APC annual meeting in March 2001. The Chief Executive of the APC, Brendan Flynn, and President, Greg Hartung, worked with Board Director, Ian Fowler, to draft the resolution.  Fowler was also Executive Director of the Australian Blind Sports Federation and like Cusack before, was well placed to work with his counterparts within other NSODs, effectively as an emissary of the APC Board.

Mainstreaming resolution

On 28 November 2000, an explanatory letter over the signature of Fowler was sent to all APC members.  The letter provided a ‘roadmap’ which could bring about a successful resolution at the forthcoming AGM: “The following is proposed as a way of opening up the membership of the APC to enable those national sporting organisations who are genuinely involved in delivering programs for our athletes, the opportunity to join us. This will not only broaden our ‘family’ but also provide the encouragement to other NSO’s to also broaden their scope to include athletes with a disability.  This has obvious benefits for our athletes and is clearly the direction government wishes us to go.” This laid out the rationale and the practical steps which were necessary to put in place the amendments to the APC Constitution to be voted on in March 2001:

  1. A National Sporting Organisation is eligible to apply for membership of the APC provided their sport is represented on the International Paralympic summer or winter programs;
  2. The NSO’s application will be considered and judged on its merits by a membership committee comprising the APC President, APC Chief Executive Officer, APC Sports General Manager, a representative of the elected Board of APC and/or several representatives of the NSOD’s who are not current Board members. (this clause was further clarified by explaining that an NSOD may have more than one representative in situations where a sport’s athlete participation is drawn from more than one disability group, for example Basketball.);
  3. The APC will require the applicant to demonstrate a commitment to delivering quality programs for elite athletes with a disability within its mainstream activities, including competition programs;
  4. The NSO and the APC will be required to enter into a contract for services which will be monitored and measured against specific performance and management targets. (Ref 1)

Fowler sensibly advised recipients of the communication that he had enlisted the support of other key figures in the NSOD community in advance of the meeting.  These were Ron Finneran (Disabled Winter Sport Australia) and Corny Van Eldik (Cerebral Palsy Sport and Recreation Federation).

 Success at Last!

The Annual General Meeting was held on 30 March 2001 and the motion to approve the opening of the membership and amend the Constitution was passed. (The AGM had been delayed from 2000 because of the interruption to the calendar caused by the Sydney 2000 Games). Athletics Australia was accepted as accepted as the first National Federation to become a member pending the signing of the formal agreement.

The April 2001 edition of the ‘Australian Paralympian’ newsletter heralded the success of the long campaign. It was an outcome brought about through evolution, not revolution. It had required a motivation for reform grounded on a desire to give Paralympic athletes equal opportunities to their Olympic counterparts. It was the generosity of the NSOD’s which enabled the reform to happen. (Ref 3)

The athletic performances of Australia’s Paralympic athletes, finishing on top of the Sydney 2000 medal tally, unambiguously announced that they had arrived as serious high-performance athletes. They had earned their place in the mainstream.

The APC announced… “backed by a majority of the APC membership, the decision to extend membership paves the way for NSOs to deliver the sports programs for Paralympic athletes and ensure Paralympic athletes can train and compete alongside Australia’s elite able-bodied sportspeople.”  As President of the APC, Hartung said the recent announcement from Athletics Australia to include Paralympic athletes under the same high-performance program and umbrella as able-bodied athletes was the forerunner for the APC’s other sports programs and was directly linked to the successful change of the constitution. He said: “For this organisation to flourish, it is vitally important for the broader sports community to have a positive impact and for the APC to be able to draw on the expertise in all its sports.” (Ref 4)

In a separate media statement, Hartung described the decision as a landmark change: “This is a great step forward for the APC and ensures the organisation has a much wider and diverse base of support and membership.  It is important for the APC to move in this direction as it is one of the recommendations of the Australian Sports Commission’s review into the future of sport.” (Ref 5)

It was not so much a case of “mission accomplished” but it was certainly the end of the beginning.  It celebrated one of those rare occasions when all parties (albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm) were in alignment.

Athletics Australia: first out of the blocks

Prior to the Games, and in advance of any mainstreaming agreement was in place, the APC had been engaged in discussions with Athletics Australia (AA) about the best way the two organisations could work together to support Paralympic athletes and specifically how APC programs could be included within the sport.

Athletics Australia proved a natural trailblazer.  The sport had a history of supporting athletes with a disability from the mid 1990’s through the work of its then Development Manager and later General Manager, Jason Hellwig who was later to join the staff of the APC.  Hellwig and Athletics Australia CEO, Neil King, understood the opportunity and the responsibility to elevate services and competition for aspiring Paralympians.  Their pioneering work was continued by a later Athletics CEO, Simon Allatson, in the build up toward the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games. 

AA had provided a model for other sports to follow.  Discussions between AA and the APC had mainly been along the lines of how services of the respective organisations might become more closely aligned. The success of the Sydney 2000 Games raised the discussion to a new level: from co-operation to full membership. (Ref 5)

Mainstreaming locked in

On behalf of the APC, CEO, Brendan Flynn, wrote to national federations on 15 June 2001 advising them of the APC’s policy change and constitutional reform. Just five days later, Hellwig replied with the first application for membership formalising their acceptance at the AGM.  Hellwig observed, inter alia: “Our demonstrated outcomes in providing participation and development opportunities for Athletes with Disabilities at all levels and supported further by the recently established agreement with your organisation to manage the Paralympic Preparation Program for athletes demonstrates both an historical and future commitment to the principles of the APC.

 “The opportunity to formalise what has become a close and mutually beneficial relationship between our organisations is a welcome and appropriate step …”   (Ref 1)                  

New playing field    

Government and sport came to accept mainstreaming as an established approach to disability sport.  The Liberal Party had enthusiastically embraced the mainstreaming concept; its policy called “Backing Australia’s Sporting Ability – A more active Australia” was taken to the Federal election held on 10 November 2001. The policy committed the government to supporting the APC’s mainstreaming initiative “as part of the government’s goal for high performance sport (and) to support and strengthen our national sporting structures so that Australian athletes have the systems and back up they need to continue to compete successfully at the Paralympic Games in 2004 in Athens and at the 2008 Paralympic Games.”  (Ref 6)

A strong supporter of mainstreaming was the Liberal Government’s Minister for the Arts and Sport, Senator Rod Kemp who went on to become one of Australia’s longest serving and most highly regarded sport ministers.   

By the time of the November AGM, Athletics had made a successful transition and discussions were well advanced with other sports, including Tennis Australia.

By mid-2002 the APC had entered into an agreement with the Australian Sports Commission through a program called Project Connect designed to assist National Federations to integrate programs for athletes with a disability into their sports.

Mainstreaming gathers pace

At the 2003 AGM, the APC was able to announce that mainstreaming agreements had been signed with six sports in addition to Athletics – Cycling, Tennis, Sailing, Swimming, Basketball and Table Tennis.  They were all now members of the APC alongside the NSOD’s. By the time of the London Games of 2012 arrived 13 sport programs had been mainstreamed. Given the historical obstacles both within the APC and within national federations, this was a remarkable achievement.

The APC locked in the agreements with those national federations which declared their commitment to equality and fairness toward all athletes. It was a partnership – embedded in a Paralympic Performance Agreement – created to ensure that the status and support for athletes with a disability was elevated to the same level as Olympic athletes.   

Finance helps

The “policeman” on the block to ensure promises were met was the APC. The Agreement was supervised through a Joint Management Committee comprising the APC and the NF, as well as a representative from the ASC.  Clear expectations and targets were laid out in the contract.  The APC — with the support of the Federal Government and the ASC — provided the NFs with “new” money to back the program making it clear that it would not contemplate a relationship with a NF unless the bona fides of the sport was genuine and that it demonstrated progress toward elevating Paralympic sport to its rightful place alongside Olympic sport. 

While constitutional change and contractual agreements can take considerable time and involve lengthy debate, attitudinal change, on the other hand, can often be generational. The essence of the Paralympic Performance Agreement was unambiguous in its obligations and expectations which was probably its greatest strength. However, attitudes among some administrators from both the abled bodied and disabled sectors, would take some time to change. Many saw the disability sector as just another burden on a system already struggling to meet demand from its Olympic and participatory programs.

Community and political perceptions and understanding of Paralympic sport had changed markedly especially in the wake of the Sydney 2000 Games.  Attitudes improved; negatives became positives.  Political appeal and support improved. Like all things, performance mattered. 

The success of the contractual approach under the auspices of the APC was showing real results on and off the field of play.  By 2005, some three years after the signing of the first Agreement, a second wave of sports were already approaching the APC to sign up, encouraged, no doubt, by the fact that the APC provided additional funds to ensure that the good intentions turned into real action.

The APC was the conduit for ASC funding support for Paralympic athletes.  The funding lever was an undeniably powerful incentive for NFs to honor their commitments under their agreements with the APC.  The ASC was never entirely comfortable with this arrangement and had argued that it should fund NFs directly for Paralympic programs, thus by-passing the APC.  In one sense this was the ultimate outcome of a mature mainstreaming policy and was to be expected.  The question was one of timing because it would have the effect of weakening the influence and engagement of the APC with the NFs.  Ultimately the ASC was successful in bring about the change in arrangements.  In 2015, the APC relinquished its control and agreed with the ASC position.       

The Disability Agenda

The Commission, since it interim status from 1983 had always supported initiatives to assist athletes with a disability.  The problem it experienced from the outset, however, was money! Or the lack of it. There was no lack of commitment – but this did not always extend to equality of funding between able-bodied athletes and athletes with a disability. 

The ASC produced a report to government in June 1999, ‘Beyond 2000’, acknowledging that sport for people with disabilities would be a key part of its program ‘Active Australia’ which became effectively a single national participation strategy.  It included programs such as Aussie Sport (for children’s sport), Willing and Able (for disability), mature aged sport, volunteer encouragement program, women and sport and the indigenous sport program. (Ref 7)

By 1999-2000, the Commission had publicly come on board with the Australian Paralympic Committee’s announced policy objective of mainstreaming – where possible and practical to do so – the sports on the Paralympic program.  The ‘Beyond 2000’ report committed the ASC to “enhance its focus on disability sport, recognising the special needs of athletes with disabilities but always in accordance with the philosophy of mainstreaming.  For this, money is needed.”  (Ref 7)

The Commission had estimated that 3.5 million Australians experienced some form of disability while acknowledging that a key outcome of providing access to sport and physical activity for this cohort would assist independent living and quality of life objectives.  Australia’s second place on the medal table at the Atlanta Paralympic Games had established its status as one of the leading countries for the delivery of elite athletes with a disability.  The first place achieved at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games reinforced this perception.

The Commission aligned this success with the programs run through the AIS: the AIS Athletes with Disabilities Program and the acclaimed Coaching Athletes with Disabilities (CAD) program. (The latter was later to be made available to developing nations through the Australian Paralympic Committee and the ASC as a gift to the International Paralympic Committee.). Despite the success of these programs, the Commission lamented that government had still not increased its funding commitment.  By assembling all of its programs for “socially disadvantaged” groups under the umbrella of Active Australia, the ASC hoped to get better use of available resources.

If changing practices to include support for high performance athletes with a disability had proven difficult for the Commission, the other end of the spectrum was doubly difficult.  “Opportunities for non-elite participation for athletes with disabilities are hampered by negative attitudes of service providers, lack of awareness of services, difficulty of physical access to facilities, ad hoc service delivery and lack of qualified personnel,” the Beyond 2000 report observed. (Ref 7)  Still, the ASC had committed itself to encouraging and providing opportunities to the sector so that people with disabilities could participate in sport and physical activity “at their desired level and to achieve their personal goals”. 

All about outcomes

“Mainstreaming” was an important approach to achieving sports outcomes.  It won the acceptance and endorsement of the government and politicians on both sides. The Commission in turn acknowledged that it needed to adopt the policy and adapt it to its own structures and programs.

“The emphasis of this vision is on including people with disabilities into regular sporting environments.  The inclusion philosophy applies to how the Commission operates internally, through specialist assistance provided within the AIS, the Australian Coaching Council (ACC) and the Participation Division, and how it operates externally, through the development of inclusive mainstream programs and services such as the Disability Education Program and the AIS Scholarships Program.  The Sports Management Division of the ASC also provided assistance to national sporting organisations for the disabled (NSODs) through the Sports Assistance Scheme and to the Australian Paralympic Committee through the Paralympic Preparation Program….” Beyond 2000 promised. (Ref 7)  For the Commission in late 1999 the intent was clear despite the fact that funding did not always give effect to that intent.

The Commission acknowledged the growing professionalism and reach of the Australian Paralympic Committee in developing and managing the requirements of elite Paralympic athletes.  Despite the slowness of many National Federations to embrace the inclusiveness (and commensurate responsibility) of mainstreaming, the APC had started the process and was working separately with the Federations.  Over the next decade most national federations, led by Athletics Australia, had adopted inclusive programs for athletes with a disability.

Green shoots

While the funding imbalance between Paralympic and able-bodied sport via the ASC remained a challenge and was a constant target of APC advocacy to the federal government, NFs benefitted from additional funding provide by the APC to assist with paralympic programs.  The APC was able to provide valuable additional services to support the NFs, many of which were mystified by the specific characteristics of Paralympic sport such as the classification system. 

Off the back of mainstreaming, the APC developed a ‘whole of pathway’ approach to Paralympic sport development which included a practical hands-on approach to support sporting organisations, and Government agencies, to improve their understanding of the Para sport and the unique challenges being met by athletes with a disability.  The National Classification Program spanned the athlete pathway from grass roots to elite sport. It fundamentally assisted individuals to establish how their disability would be assessed and consequently where they would “fit” to enable them to compete in Paralympic sport.  The APC led the program to have athletes classified.  From 2006 to 2012 some 2,500 individuals had been successfully classified by the APC, for and on behalf of sport federations. 

Augmenting the core classification and mainstreaming programs, the APC also made the promotion of Paralympic sport and identification of potential high-performance athletes a priority. 

From 2005 to 2012, approximately 2000 individuals attended APC Talent Search programs Australia-wide, in addition to workshops aimed at introducing children to sport in collaboration with School Sport Australia. 

Research projects specifically targeting sport for athletes with a disability and supportive coach development programs across sports, underscored the central role of the APC prior to the 2012 London Games as the key driver of the mainstreaming philosophy.

These innovations and program initiatives would not have been possible, or would have been less successful, had the seven members of the APC in 2001 not agreed to open up their organisation and “mainstream” Paralympic sport.  This has proven to be one of the most enduring legacies of the Sydney 2000 Games.


1. Mainstreaming Documents, Greg Hartung Collection at National Library of Australia

2. Roy Masters, Mainstreaming’ the Paralympic movement’s hot debate in the making – Paralympics, Sydney Morning Herald, 21 October 2000

3. Australian Paralympian, April 2001

4. APC’s landmark change to membership,Australian Paralympic Committee Media Release, April 2001

5. AA To Manage The Future Of Paralympic Athletes In Australia, Australian Paralympic Committee Media Release, March 2001

6. Backing Australia’s sporting ability : a more Active Australia (2001)

7. The Australian Sports Commission – Beyond 2000.

Author’s Background

Greg Hartung AO brings great knowledge and experience to the development of sport in Australia. He was a sport & political journalist, Member of the Interim Committee of the Australian Sports Commission (1983-1984), inaugural CEO Australian Sports Commission (1983-1988), Commissioner of the Australian Sports Commission (1991-1996), 2006-2010), Chair of the Australian Sports Commission (2008-20100, Member of the Australian Sports Foundation Board Member (1995-1996, 2006-2010 ) Chair of the Australian Sports Foundation (2008-2010), President of the Confederation of Australian Sport (1989-1995) and Australian Paralympic Committee (1997-2013) and Vice President of the International Paralympic Committee (2009-2013) and Adjunct Professor, University of Canberra (2014-)

Part 24 – Support For Athletes With A Disability: From The Ground Up …The Years Of Struggle To Be Taken Seriously

Listing of articles in History of Australian Sport Policy Series

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