Australian Paralympic team: Our most-loved representatives

At the recent Australian Paralympic team launch in Sydney, co-captain and wheelchair racing gold medallist, Kurt Fearnley said “We will be the most loved Australian team”. International and Australian athletes and teams are now constantly in the news headlines, and frequently the stories are not positive. 

We constantly hear and read about doping scandals, salary cap rorts, gambling and anti-social behaviour by athletes, teams and administrators. You get the feeling that sport is no longer a vehicle for demonstrating good societal values such as personal excellence and behaviour, social cohesion, community spirit, loyalty, dedication and teamwork. 

Both professional and even Olympic sports are embroiled in these controversies that harm these values of sport. So what values are Australians looking for in their national teams so that they are ‘loved’ and be the ‘most loved’? These values may include striving to win but not at any cost, inclusiveness, selflessness, good behaviour, teamwork, loyalty and national pride. 

The first Summer Paralympics were held in Rome in 1960 and since these Games the Australian Paralympic Team has had very few if any scandals or controversies. The first team comprised 12 wheelchair athletes including one female athlete (Daphne Cenney) and one indigenous athlete (Kevin Coombs). 

It was not until the 1962 Commonwealth Paraplegic Games in Perth that Australians had their first exposure to international Paralympic competition. At these Games, an English officials’ comments highlighted possible perceptions about Paralympic sport by saying “For many, this must have been a first introduction to swimming by the paralysed, and I felt that many were wondering whether paralysed persons could swim 50 metres – how many would fail to make the distance and it was all just a stunt to enlist their sympathies and raise money”. 

Since the 2000 Sydney Paralympics, the Australian community’s awareness and appreciation of Paralympic athlete performances has greatly improved and the perceptions of 1962 thankfully no longer prevail. At the 2016 Rio Paralympics, the Australian Team is likely to comprise 170 athletes and will be very inclusive in many ways. 

Age is not a barrier in Paralympic sport with the team including 14-year-old short stature swimmer Tiffany Thomas Kane making her debut, to 74-year-old wheelchair shooter Libby Kosmala competing at her 12th Games. The team will include athletes from a range of disabilities that include spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy, amputee, vision impaired, intellectual disability, multiple sclerosis and short statue. 

There are many athletes from ethnic backgrounds and one athlete, Ahmed Kelly, was adopted from an Iraqi orphanage at the age of seven. Athletes might have acquired their disability at birth or the result of recent accident or health deterioration. With this background in mind I cannot think of a more inclusive Australian sporting team. 

Australian Paralympic Team athletes are role models and can be inspiring. Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull at the team launch when commenting about paracanoeist Curtis McGrath, an Australian Army engineer who lost his legs in Afghanistan, said he was: “an inspiration to our Defence Forces, to all our wounded warriors, those with a disability and those without. 

His story is a remarkable feat of triumph over adversity, triumph out of tragedy.” All Australian athletes have a similar story to McGrath is overcoming adversity and displaying characteristics that make them good role models in Australian society”. Paralympic athletes are definitely great role models. 

In 2012, the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) was established by the Australian Government with support of State Governments. The aim of the NDIS is improve the lives of Australians with a disability by expanding access to community services and activities over their lifetime. 

Australian Paralympic athletes are a great example of how better funding and improved services can improve the lives of people with a disability, particularly those with sporting aspirations. 

Government funding, corporate sponsorship and community donations to Australian Paralympians since the early 1990’s have increased significantly and therefore these athletes have been given more opportunities to train in high-performance facilities, obtain sports scholarships with quality coaching and funding to compete in Australia and overseas competitions. 

Financial support is still below that provided to Olympic athletes but the gap is closing. Recently the ACT Government donated equal funding of $200,000 to Australian Olympic and Paralympic Rio Campaign. Sue Powell, cycling gold medallist at the London Paralympics, commented “At times in the past you feel like a poor cousin of Olympic athletes, but to be on equal footing is amazing. 

In the past four years, the support for the Paralympic team has increased, and we don’t put any less time in because it’s a Paralympics. Our dedication and our training regime is the same, but chances for sponsorship isn’t the same. So this is just the support.” Australians can now see how their investment is helping Paralympic athletes achieve their sporting goals and the same will happen with the NDIS. 

I think the Australian Paralympic Team has a strong case for being the ‘most loved’ sporting Australian team as it continues to demonstrate what is good about sport – dedication, overcoming adversity, inspiring others, teamwork and inclusiveness. The Australian community and the NDIS can well look to the Paralympic movement to see the benefits of how funding and services can improve the lives of those with a disability. 

By Greg Blood

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