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Our Paralympians: Beacons of hope and inspiration in an uncertain world

Copyrights: Paralympics Australia

Our Paralympians: Beacons of hope and inspiration in an uncertain world

Last week, we celebrated exactly 20 years since the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games. While there are differing views of the ongoing legacy of such games, there is no disputing the impact that they have on the amazing athletes on which the show revolves around, and the often transformative role they play in challenging wider society’s attitudes to people with disability and what they can achieve.

Numerous research papers, reports and surveys can attest to the positive (and negative) impact and legacy of disability sporting events, so I will leave it to those voices directly involved to tell it as they see it.

Louise Sauvage, who lit the Paralympic cauldron at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games said: "It didn't matter whether you had a disability or not, [the audience] just saw sport and they saw it perhaps in a little different light.”

Sauvage went on to change the sport of wheelchair racing by becoming one of its first truly professional athletes and, in the process, dominated it for a decade and raised the profile and perception of Paralympic sport and Paralympic athletes in Australia and around the world.

Australian wheelchair basketball champion, sailor and politician, Liesl Tesch, had the opportunity in September this year to join a room of the key organisers of the Sydney 2000 Games. She said: “I am going to cry with gratitude to the people in this room who changed the lives of athletes with disability. You made it an accessible city, you have given us a voice, you have given us dignity. Before they would say ‘what’s wrong with that lady,’ now they ask ‘what sport does she do?’”

During the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Queensland, Australian of the year nominee Kurt Fearnley, a multiple Paralympic gold medallist in wheelchair racing, said: We’ve had disability on the television, in the papers, all across social media. Not because we had been denied access to a flight, been involved in an accident or stuck outside a building with a flight of stairs blocking access. We’ve been in your faces because of hard work, determination and success on the track and in life. We are too often marginalised by invisibility. These Games have helped remove that cloak.”

Ellie Cole, an Australian para-swimming gold medallist at the same event, said: “A constant theme in the many messages I’ve got is from people saying they are going to get off the couch and exercise because seeing a para-athlete race they realise they have no real excuse not to get out there and get healthy. The ones I really love have come from parents of kids with disabilities who say their child has just lost a leg to cancer and they want to be like me because they see us on TV.”

Australian journalist Malcolm Knox said after watching the competition: Para athletes bring a diversity of backgrounds to their events. They have arrived after travelling myriad different paths. Some athletes have taken up sports as therapy after injuries or inherited or acquired disabilities. Para sports are not just sports; they are vehicles of education.”

The Paralympic Games are the third largest sports event on the planet, in terms of ticket sales, and the world’s number one sports event for driving social inclusion. The Games provide world-class sport and also help to transform attitudes towards the world’s largest marginalised community, the one billion people across the globe who have a disability.

International Paralympic Committee Vice-President, Duane Kale said: “Everybody has a contribution to make, but unfortunately, often people with an impairment are judged by what they can’t do. But here, they are judged in an athletic environment and what they can achieve. That changes society, it flows into business, into economics and the well-being and progress of countries. Para-sport normalises disability and impairment within society.”

International Day of People with Disability is a timely occasion to recognise the important role our Paralympic role models have played in inspiring people to stay healthy throughout the COVID-19 crisis this year. The pandemic has changed the world and re-focused our priorities in sport and our communities. For the Paralympic movement, it presents a chance to showcase the strength and breadth of human endeavour, resilience and hope, and to help us all to work towards a more diverse and inclusive society.

Dr. Paul Oliver works on promoting social justice and human rights issues in sport, such as inclusion, safeguarding, good governance and integrity. He works with international/national/state sporting organisations and clubs and the people who lead them to help address challenging conteporary issues in sport. 

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Paul Oliver

Published

Friday, November 20, 2020 - 11:56

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