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Australia at the Paralympics

Release Date: June 7, 2024

Category: Uncategorized

Australia has an incredible history in the Olympic movement. The country has sent a team to every Summer Olympics and won at least one medal every time, beginning with runner Edwin Flack’s gold medals in the 800m and 1500m in Athens 1896. But Australia also has a very rich and colorful Paralympic history that deserves equal recognition.

Australia first sent a team to an international event for disabled athletes in 1957. During a visit to the Royal Perth Hospital Spinal Unit, Dr. Ludwig Guttman, the founder of the Stoke Mandeville Games (the precursor to the Paralympics), met with the hospital’s director, Dr. George Bedbrook and encouraged (some say challenged) Bedbrook to assemble a team for the summer Games.

Nine athletes journeyed to England to represent Australia at those Stoke Mandeville Games. Fencers Bill Mather-Brown and Frank Ponta won gold in team sabre, the first for Australia in adaptive sport. Mather-Brown was quite the well-rounded athlete–in addition to competing in fencing, he also took part in basketball, field events, and swimming competitions.

Twelve Australian athletes made the trip to Rome in 1960 for the first Paralympic Games. The team had little information about other teams and were unsure what to expect about the physical abilities of their competitors or their equipment. The team exceeded all expectations, winning three gold medals, six silver, and one bronze. Bill Mather-Brown took home a silver, this time in table tennis. Daphne Ceeney, the first Australian woman to compete internationally in disability sports, won six medals in swimming and athletics. Ceeney went on to win an additional eight Paralympic medals over the next two Paralympic Games in swimming, athletics, archery, and pentathlon.

Skier Ron Finneran competed at the first Winter Paralympics in 1976, though at the time it was called the Winter Olympic Games for the Disabled. Finneran was not an official entrant, so Australia is not always listed in the records as a participating country. Michael Milton won the first Winter Paralympic medals for Australia in Albertville 1992 in alpine skiing.

Australia has hosted the Paralympics once, in Sydney 2000. As with the Summer Olympics that year, the Sydney Paralympics were a huge success. 1.2 million tickets were sold for the 550 medal events in 19 sports. Kylie Minogue performed at the 3-hour long opening ceremony. Women’s para powerlifting and wheelchair rugby made their official Paralympic debuts. The USA and Australia met in the first wheelchair rugby gold medal match, sparking a new USA-Australia rivalry (USA won by a single point). Australia dominated the medal count, winning 149 medals, 63 of those gold.

A star of those Paralympics, wheelchair tennis multi-gold medalist Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson from Great Britain, had special praise for Sydney. As noted on the City of Parramatta History and Heritage site, Grey-Thompson said, “Sydney 2000 will always hold a special place in the hearts of everyone who was there. The Aussies love their sport and they treated us simply as sportsmen and women. We weren’t regarded as role models or inspirations, we were competitors…Sydney was phenomenal because, from day one, you felt there was something extraordinarily special in the air. Sydney was an athletic Disneyland, it was where magic happened. It probably marked the time and place when Paralympians genuinely became part of the Olympic Movement.”

The only tiny hiccup in an otherwise outstanding Games may have been the mascot for the Paralympics: Lizzie, the slightly terrifying frill-necked lizard.

Australia has participated in every Paralympic Games, both winter and summer, since 1960, winning 1,046 medals. Only the USA and Great Britain have won more. Paralympics Australia hopes to send a team of about 200 to Paris 2024, including multi-medalist in wheelchair racing from Tokyo Madison de Rozario, and the Australian Steelers wheelchair rugby team.

Paralympics Australia has compiled photos, videos, oral histories, and stories from the history of disability sport in Australia. Paralympic Stories goes back to events from 1912 through today. Be sure to take a look!