The Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games Was Rocket Fuel For Athletes With A Disability…The Spectacular Success of Sydney Became a Turning Point for the Paralympic Movement

By Greg Hartung AO

History of Australian Sport Policy Series: Part 26


The Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games has been described as the “benchmark” Games for the Paralympic Movement.  This is true in many respects, but not all.  Coming off a low base from the Atlanta Games four years earlier, the Sydney Games were undoubtedly a great leap forward in presentation and performance.

It raised the status of the athletes and the worldwide Paralympic Movement to a level not seen before. Sydney shone the light on the athleticism of the athletes, not the disability.  This alone had a transformational effect. 

For Australia, the Games were particularly exciting with the home team finishing on top of the medal table for the first time. The public developed a huge appetite for the events themselves and packed most of the venues throughout the Games. After the stress of delivering the Olympic Games, the Paralympics were more relaxed, family friendly and, with a day pass at $15, more affordable.  Almost 1.2 million spectators attended the Paralympic Games, including some 340,000 school children from every State and Territory. It was the equivalent of having an AFL Grand Final crowd 10 days in a row. 

Olympic Park took on a carnival-like atmosphere. The crowds, and the athletes, were noticeability having fun and the volunteers — as Sydney’s welcoming “shop front” — seemed more relaxed than during the Olympics, leaving visitors with a lasting and memorable experience.

Triumph after Tribulation   

The eventual success story was not the only story.  The Games themselves, initially at least, attracted lukewarm support from government. When the IOC voted to assign the Olympics to Sydney, there had been no automatic endorsement of the Paralympics. The Paralympic Games was a relatively little known and less understood event and the most recent memory of the Paralympic Games in Atlanta in 1996 was poor with a sub-par operational delivery and athlete experience.

It was only through the doggedness of Paralympic identities such as Ron Finneran and the fledgling Australian Paralympic Federation (APF) that the Games were eventually awarded to an ambivalent Sydney.  Expectations were not high. From the moment Sydney was awarded the Paralympic Games it was a major effort to garner government support, both State and Federal.

The “bolting on” of the Paralympic Games to the Olympics — with the added administrative and financial burden — was seen by some more as an obligation than an opportunity.    The risk, however, was that any repeat of the Atlanta experience in Sydney would have a profoundly negative impact on the delivery and legacy of the whole Olympic and Paralympic festival.  It was going to be risky with an added cost and administrative burden. But if Sydney was to host the Paralympic Games it had to succeed.   

The Paralympic Movement — compared to its Olympic equivalent both domestically and internationally — was cash poor and without the administrative back-up and sophistication of the Olympic Committee. The Australian Paralympic Federation had only been formed in 1990 and was scarcely a financially viable organisation in itself and yet was championing an event which had no effective budgetary guarantee and an even less effective immediate track record of success.  It is to the great credit of the Australian Paralympic Movement and the Sydney Paralympic Organising Committee (SPOC) that Sydney, against the odds, raised the bar for Paralympic sport to new heights.

Crisis in confidence        

There was uncertainty and unpredictability about the Paralympics. There was no confidence that the Paralympic Games would rate in the media or draw spectator interest, especially coming on the heels of the much-vaunted Olympic Games.  But what occurred surprised everyone.

From a basis of low expectations to a spectacular opening ceremony and riveting competition, the Paralympic Games in Sydney defied the odds and captured the hearts and minds of the public across Australia and around the world and set a new precedent for other Games organisers to follow.  When Channel 7 pulled out of the opportunity to televise the Games, the ABC stepped in and proved the pundits wrong and exceeded its own expectations with spectacular ratings. 

From the beginning of the Paralympic Games, the ABC ratings soared.  The Opening Ceremony was the highest rating program for the ABC since the 1982 Commonwealth Games and the ratings held up throughout the days of competition ahead.  Executive Producer, Justin Holdforth, was under pressure from the public to extend the ABC’s coverage and daily highlights package. The national broadcaster had made the right call.

Simply put, Sydney 2000 was a happy Games, without pretension and, for many, without any great expectation. As it unfolded it produced some breathtaking moments not only on the field of play but also among the spectator throng which came in increasing numbers for a new experience in sport. It was sport how it was meant to be. Suddenly Australia’s athletes were recognisable and the medal winners celebrated. 

It was the success of the Australian team, combined with the professional delivery of the event and venues, which provided the winning ingredients.  It earned for Sydney the epithet of the benchmark games.  In a wider sense it became a powerful influence in re-defining perceptions about people with disability and the role of sport in their lives. The positive ripples went around the world and touched the attitudes and decisions of future cities and Games organisers.

IOC and IPC relationship

At an organisational level, the Games also marked a new beginning in the link between the Olympics and Paralympics and, specifically, the relationship between the IOC and IPC. The Olympic/Paralympic Games was marketed as a 60-day sports festival and its success encouraged the drafting of a formal agreement between the two international organisations. 

The first of several iterations of this agreement was signed in the aftermath of the Sydney Games but it would take several years and tense negotiation before several elements of the agreement were finally settled.  It was, however, a watershed event, particularly for the IPC, which struggled to come to terms with the full contractual implications of the agreement to its future and independence. The detail of the IOC/IPC negotiations, and IPC responses, are included in my archival collection contained in the Australian National Library. (Ref 1)

Long road to the start line

It is a measure of the perseverance of those few sport leaders supporting the Paralympic Games that not only did government eventually get behind the event but that it became a major Australian sporting success story. It was, however, to be a long journey to get to the start line. 

Despite representations made by the APF to the Sydney Olympic Bid Committee (SOBC) in 1991/92, the Paralympic Games were not initially included in its bid plans for 2000.  SOBC was of the view that any Paralympic bid for Sydney should only be considered after the city had won the Olympic Games. SOBC had been established for the sole purpose of bidding for the Olympics.  It was structured as a company under a Deed of Agreement involving the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC), the NSW Government and the City of Sydney. Under this Agreement, SOBC was unable to submit a bid for the Paralympics.

It was left to the APF to carry the case forward internationally with the IPC.

Sydney was competing against Berlin, Beijing and Manchester for the 2000 Games.  The three competitors to Sydney had included the Paralympic Games as an integral component of their Olympic Bid Committees from the outset – and they promised that both Games would be delivered under the one organising committee.  Sydney identified this issue as a potential weakness in its bid and addressed this in December 1992.

SOBC advised the APF that, despite its earlier reluctance, it would include a statement in its bid document that Sydney was willing to stage the Paralympic Games should it win the Olympic Games but no undertaking was given for a joint organising committee. In contrast, the three competitors to Sydney had looked to the previously successful Seoul and Barcelona Olympics and Paralympics and promoted a combined Olympic/Paralympic umbrella organisation for the delivery of the respective Games.  The delivery of back-to-back Olympic and Paralympics was a model to be followed by the Atlanta Games in 1996 and has now become standard practice.

Bare bones  

From the start of the bid process, it was clear that the APF and its modest band of supporters was to confront a monumental struggle for approval and acceptance. The campaign to win the Paralympic Games for Sydney was primarily run from late 1992 – it had neither the support base, the organisational structure, the sophistication, political and business connections, nor the money which sat behind Sydney’s efforts for the Olympic Games. 

This was a herculean task for a bare bones organisation and would severely test the limits of its committed personnel. The APF was only formally established as an entity separate in January 1990 emerging from the Australian Confederation of Sports for the Disabled (ACSD) which previously had among its functions the organisation of summer and winter Paralympic Teams.  Now this role fell to the APF and its workforce of paid staff and volunteers – along with the daunting task of bidding for the Games and convincing the sceptics that this was not only important for athletes with a disability but also an extraordinary opportunity for Australia to showcase to the world its ability to lift the Paralympic Games to a new level.

The Prime Minister at the time, Bob Hawke, had helped launch the APF as an independently incorporated body in October 1990 and in the space of a mere 10 years it was to be the host National Paralympic Committee (NPC) of the second largest international multi-sport event.

Following the formal announcement, the APF was successful in obtaining basic office accommodation at NSW Sports House, situated under the grandstand at the Wentworth Park greyhound track in Sydney, courtesy of the NSW Department of Sport, Recreation and Racing. 

Serious work on the preparation of the bid document began in December 1992.  Given the detail that went into the Olympic bid by comparison and the widespread support generated, it was apparent that there was not the same level of early enthusiasm for the Paralympics, outside the APF community itself.  This ambivalence made the job harder, but not impossible, for the battle seasoned champions of Paralympic sport at the APF led by Ron Finneran.

Bid presentation   

The APF, under the management of Executive Officer, Adrienne Smith, assembled a working group and, with the assistance of some members of the SOBC staff, managed to complete a submission in eight weeks to host the Games. The proposal needed to be received by the IPC by March 1993 if it was to be considered.  The deadline was met with the submission also including letters of support from the Prime Minister, the NSW Premier and the Lord Mayor of Sydney.

The bid was delivered to the IPC Executive Committee in Lillehammer, Norway, on 21 March 1993 alongside presentations from Beijing, Manchester and Berlin.  According to records from the APF, the presentation and budget predictions by Sydney were modest.  SOBC’s General Manager accompanied the presentation team to Norway in solidarity.  His costs were met by SOBC which also covered the travel costs of one other person from the APF.  Other costs were met by the APF. 

“It proved essential that the additional team members attended,” the APF recorded. “Other bidding cities were strongly represented. An undermanned team from Australia would have found it difficult to do the job satisfactorily.  In addition, a lack of respect would have been implied for the importance of the occasion which is, after all, comparable to an Olympic presentation.”  The initial budget proposed for the Paralympic Games was $84 million to be covered by sponsorship and ticket sales along with financial backing from both the Federal and State governments. (Ref 2)

1993 – the year it almost came unstuck

The year commenced with both good news and bad news for the struggling APF.  Finneran, in correspondence to the Federal Minister for Sport, Ros Kelly, confirmed that the Sydney Olympic bid would support Sydney’s intention to host the Paralympics and that the bid documentation to be presented to the IPC meeting in Lillehammer carried the written endorsement of both the Prime Minister and the NSW Premier.  This was the good news…

The bad news in Finneran’s correspondence again came back to the question of funding.  It could be argued that the APF had engaged in an exercise of brinkmanship. A faltering Paralympic bid, if allowed to fall over through lack of financial support, would adversely impact on the Olympic bid.  Nonetheless, there was no denying the parlous financial position of the APF and its lack of capacity to raise the necessary capital without serious government assistance.

The Paralympic camp had little of the commercial “pulling power” of their Olympic counterparts. According to the advice given to them by the bid organisers, the APF would need to find the resources itself to cover not only the costs of submitting the bid, but, more substantially, the event itself.  The APF’s “kitchen table” administration did not have the resources to do so and could barely raise the $US50,000 required as a “deposit” should their bid gain favour with the IPC.

Finneran advised the Minister that the latest costings to stage the Paralympics was $82.67 million of which the Sydney 2000 bid company would provide $15 million. Marketing and fund-raising and entry fees were anticipated to bring in $14.49 million leaving a shortfall of $53.18 million. Finneran raised the difficulty of running a separate marketing campaign to the Olympic Games as required by the Olympic organisers and argued for a joint campaign to maximise the opportunities to acquire private sector funding.

The immediate challenge, however, was the bid itself.  The Paralympic bid representatives would personally deliver and present the bid documentation on 21 March at the Lillehammer IPC meeting. 

Following the successful presentation of the bid, IPC representatives would be invited to carry out site inspections in Sydney in May and June 1993.

Finally, the complete presentation and report would be made to the IPC General Assembly at a meeting to be held in Berlin on 12 September 1993 before 94 Paralympic member nations. Sydney won the favour of the IPC membership, but it was not until after the members of the International Olympic Committee, at its meeting in Monte Carlo on 23 September 1993, confirmed that Sydney had won the Olympics that the Paralympics were assured.

1993 – and the financial nightmare

The struggles by the APF were not over with the successful presentation of the bid.  The quest for political backing and funding was as elusive as ever.  The increasing desperation from the APF tested relations with the Olympic Bid Committee, as well as with senior public servants and political leadership. 

The Paralympic Games was still regarded as a high-risk venture. The massive success and public support for the Paralympics was yet to manifest itself and, for the time being, the perseverance and, at times, unsophisticated advocacy by the APF was running up against significant obstacles and struggled to win supporters.

Federal election  

The Federal election was held in the midst of the APF bid campaign.  The election, on 13 March 1993, resulted in the return of the Labor Government under the Prime Ministership of Paul Keating.  Ros Kelly continue as Minister responsible for sport. The APF correspondence and appeals continue apace. 

Finneran wrote to Kelly on 19 April 1993 explaining that the APF or the Australian disabled sports community had no capacity to accept responsibility for funding or organising the Games even though it was making a bid. He proposed that the organisation of the Paralympics be organised and marketed under one banner with the Olympic Games as the best solution to ensure a successful delivery of the Paralympic Games.

I joined a small steering committee organised by the APF to help support its campaign. In May 1993 a document, described as a “white paper”, was prepared to pull together the threads of the Australian Paralympic campaign.  Its purpose was to provide the basis of future negotiations with government and to ensure a consistent message from the APF and its supporters.  Finneran sent the Paper to his Board on 12 May 1993 with the message “the white paper … clearly states to all principals concerned, the position of the Australian Paralympic Federation and therefore, the position of the Paralympics Sydney 2000 Bid Committee in relation to the conditions under which the Paralympics will be held should Sydney win the Bid.” (Ref 2)

Budget battles

On 18 May 1993 a meeting was arranged by the APF with senior officials of the NSW Premiers Department to discuss the Paralympic bid with Ron Finneran, APF Secretary-General, Adrienne Smith, and Greg Hartung in attendance. There were concerns about the Paralympic budget and doubts were raised whether the State Government would be prepared to support the Games financially to the extent necessary. There was support, however, from the department officers with respect to the concept of a joint organisation committee for both Games. 

The meeting concluded that a new budget would be drawn up by the APF which would be used to approach both the NSW and Federal Governments for a dollar-for-dollar commitment to the Paralympic Games.

The original budget estimate for the Games was $84 million; the NSW government had given an indication it would consider a commitment of $15 million. Should the Federal Government match this amount, the APF would be $30 million toward its target but still with a long way to go in a competitive sponsorship marketplace.  An exhausted APF leadership left with some hope that it had a basis upon which to build a credible case for federal government assistance.

In a follow-up appeal to Minister Kelly on 24 June 1993, Finneran made the case that the APF request was not so different from that of the Olympics.  Just as the Australian Olympic Committee could not resource the Olympic Games then neither could the APF resource, and be responsible for, the delivery of the Paralympic Games. 

Essentially, the APF had secured the goodwill and support of State and Federal Government in letters attached to its bid document but had not secured government agreement to fund the event. Sydney’s challengers – Beijing, Manchester and Berlin – had all advised the IPC that they would carry the underwriting costs for the event.  When IPC President, Bob Steadward, met with the NSW Premier, John Fahey, during his Sydney visit in July, he received no guarantee that funding for the event was assured.

Success at last!

The agonising and, at times, inexplicable confusion and debate about financial support for the Paralympic Games seemed to come to an acceptable accommodation toward the end of 1993. 

The Daily Telegraph reported on 1 October 1993 that up to $65 million would be allocated to the staging of the Sydney Paralympic Games.  Reported the Daily Telegraph: “about $40 million of that will come from NSW coffers following a commitment by the Premier John Fahey to pick up half of the funding shortfall and the Federal Government signalled it would provide up to $25 million.”   

The Telegraph also drew upon a letter written by Fahey to Prime Minister, Paul Keating “showing he had always planned to underwrite the Games.” The Telegraph maintained that in the letter dated 8 September, Fahey had asked the Prime Minister to agree to splitting equally the expected $50 million funding shortfall.

According to The Telegraph, the Fahey letter said: “In determining a sensible approach to overcoming the funding shortfall I have come to the conclusion that the fairest approach would be for the State and the Commonwealth to agree to a 50/50 split.”  (Ref 2)

For the APF it had been a tortuous journey to arrive at this “sensible approach”.  But they got there in the end. It was not exactly the end of the story; more the end of the beginning.  And, at least, a very determined and clear step forward for the Paralympic Movement.                   

Two Organising Committees

The 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta was not a model Games.  The conditions for athletes were not up to international standard.  Organisationally Atlanta had set up separate committees for the Olympics and Paralympics.  This was a mistake.  International Paralympic officials advised the Australian Paralympic Federation not to follow the Atlanta example which they maintained reduced the chances of success for the Paralympic Games and led to confusion in the market.  They recommended full organisational inclusion of the Paralympics into the Olympic organising committee.  Other bidding cities, but not Sydney, took the advice.

The Manchester bid document declared that the Paralympic Games would be an integral part of the Manchester 2000 Olympic Organising Committee to maximise the use of resources and both human and technical support.  The Berlin and Beijing bids followed in a similar vein.  However, the Sydney bid committee advised the APF that Sydney would follow the Atlanta model. 

While the APF lost this particular argument, an organisationally inclusive model inevitably took shape as preparations toward 2000 progressed. It became efficient and logical for Sydney 2000 that core elements of the delivery of the Paralympic Games would be better achieved through inclusion in the Olympic management structure.

Lasting legacy

The presentation and approval of its bid – and the securing of baseline funding — proved to be just the start of its long journey to 2000 and to assert itself from the shadow of the Olympic Games preparations.  The Paralympic Games was still an unknown quantity and interest from government and the public was mild compared to what was to come.

What was not fully appreciated at the time was the ground-breaking success of the Sydney 2000 Games. The delivery of the Games was a triumph but one which may never have occurred but for the “hard yards” done by Ron Finneran and Adrienne Smith. The Games were a turning point for athletes with a disability and sport generally, and they changed and shaped public opinion creating a new attitude toward disability.  That was its true and lasting legacy. That was the new “benchmark”.


  1. IOC/IPC Negotations Documents (Greg Hartung Papers at National Library of Australia)
  2. Australian Paralympic Federation 2000 Games Bid Documents ((Greg Hartung Papers at National Library of Australia)

Relevant References

Tony Naar, The Paralympics: The Games Sydney didn’t want? The Roar, 20 October 2020

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 27 – Athlete Entry Fees And The Creation Of The Oceania Paralympic Committee – Two Different But Lasting Dividends Of The Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games

Listing of articles in History of Australian Sport Policy Series

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