Story: Disability sport

Page 3. Paralympics and Commonwealth Games

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Origins and development 

The Paralympic Games are the elite sporting event for athletes with physical and visual disabilities. They were founded by Ludwig Guttman, head of the spinal injuries centre at Stoke Mandeville hospital in England.

Paralympic classification

In all Paralympic sports, athletes are classified on the basis of what they are capable of doing. This is somewhat similar to grouping athletes by age, gender or weight. Each sport has its own method, based on scientific research, for determining how different impairments affect an athlete’s participation. In some events, athletes with different impairments of similar magnitude compete against each other.

Sixteen ex-servicemen and women with disabilities took part in the first Stoke Mandeville Games on the opening day of the 1948 Olympic Games in London. Guttmann wanted to develop these games into the equivalent of an Olympics for disabled athletes.

The first Paralympic Games were held in Rome in 1960, with 400 athletes from 23 countries competing. In the 21st century the Paralympics are held every four years, a month after the summer and winter Olympic Games. They are governed by the International Paralympic Committee.

Paralympic athletes must fit into one of 10 impairment types:

  • impaired muscle power
  • impaired passive range of movement
  • limb deficiency 
  • leg-length difference
  • short stature
  • hypertonia (an increase of muscle tone and a reduced ability to stretch caused by damage to the central nervous system)
  • ataxia (uncoordinated muscle movements caused by damage to the central nervous system)
  • athetosis (slow involuntary muscle movements)
  • vision Impairment (reduced or no vision caused by damage to the eye, optical nerves or pathways, or visual cortex of the brain)
  • intellectual impairment (restricted intellectual functioning and adaptive behaviour which affects conceptual, social and practical adaptive skills).

How Para sport has changed

The impact of the London 2012 Paralympic Games on disability sport worldwide extended to New Zealand. An increase in mainstream media coverage moved the narrative from one of awe and wonder that people with disabilities were participating in sport to recognition of their equal status as Olympians. 

The Netflix documentary Rising phoenix, released in 2020, followed the history of the Paralympic movement through the journeys of nine Para athletes to compete at Rio de Janeiro in 2016. 

To take advantage of growing awareness of the Paralympic Games, in 2021 the International Paralympic Committee launched The Pegasus dream tour video game, which featured New Zealand javelin thrower Holly Robinson.

Who's in the news?

Before 1974 disability sport received limited media coverage, mostly in the form of human-interest stories. The exceptions were high-profile athletes such as Eve Rimmer and Neroli Fairhall. The 1974 Commonwealth Paraplegic Games in Dunedin was given extensive coverage, including its own commemorative stamp. Disability sport once again slipped from the limelight until the documentaries Twelve days of glory, on the 1992 Barcelona Paralympics, and Triumph of the human spirit, on the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics, helped raise public awareness. Since 2008, swimmer Sophie Pascoe has gained mainstream recognition as one of New Zealand’s most successful athletes. She became Dame Sophie Pascoe in the 2022 New Year Honours. 

New Zealand and the Paralympics

The New Zealand Paraplegic & Physically Disabled Federation, set up in 1968, was the national sports organisation for disabled athletes. Its main goal was to enable teams of New Zealand athletes to compete in the Paralympics. The federation became Parafed New Zealand in the 1990s and Paralympics New Zealand in 1998. Paralympics New Zealand comprises members from the Parafed Network and national sporting organisations, and sends team to the summer and winter Paralympic Games. 

Summer Paralympic Games 

There were 15 athletes in the first New Zealand Paralympic team, which attended the third Paralympic Games at Tel Aviv, Israel, in 1968. New Zealand has been represented at every subsequent summer Paralympic Games, with the size of the team slowly growing.

Winter Paralympic Games

With the exception of the first Winter Paralympic Games, held in Sweden in 1976, New Zealand athletes have attended every winter games. 

New Zealand Paralympians

New Zealand has produced many outstanding Paralympians.

  • Eve Rimmer was the only New Zealand athlete to win medals at the Tel Aviv games: gold in the javelin, silvers in the shot put and 500-metre freestyle swimming, and bronze in the discus. In four Paralympics from 1968 to 1980, Rimmer won eight gold medals, five silvers and one bronze. Like many disabled athletes, Rimmer competed in a range of sports. Most of her medals were for field events, but she twice won gold for the pentathlon and won silvers for swimming and archery.
  • Neroli Fairhall won a gold medal in archery at the Paralympics in the Netherlands in 1980. She also competed in athletics at the 1972 Heidelberg Paralympics, and in archery in the 1988 Seoul Paralympics and 2000 Sydney Paralympics. She defeated able-bodied archers at the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games. At Los Angeles in 1984, Fairhall became the first paraplegic athlete to compete at an Olympic Games.
  • Cristeen Smith won the T2 100-metre wheelchair sprint in world record time at the 1992 Barcelona Paralympics. She won the 200-metre sprint at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics and set six world records for wheelchair racing. She also set world records for discus, javelin and shot put, and played for the New Zealand wheelchair rugby team.
  • Para-swimmer Duane Kale won four gold medals in world record times at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics: 50-metre butterfly, 100-metre freestyle, 200-metre freestyle and 200-metre individual medley. He was the New Zealand team manager for the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games and chef de mission for the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Paralympic teams. He has held governance roles in Paralympic sport, both in New Zealand and internationally. Kale is vice-president of the International Paralympic Committee and a member of the evaluation commission for the 2024 Paralympic and Olympic Games.
  • Alpine skier Patrick Cooper won gold medals in the slalom LW4 and super-G LW4 at both the 1992 Tignes-Albertville and 1994 Lillehammer Winter Paralympic Games.
  • Mathew Butson made his first Paralympic appearance at Lillehammer in 1994. Four years later, he became New Zealand’s most prolific medallist at a single Paralympic Winter Games. In Nagano, Butson won the men’s giant slalom LW9, slalom LW9 and super-G LW9, rounding out his haul with a silver medal in the downhill LW1.
  • Rachael Battersby debuted at the Nagano Winter Games. At Salt Lake City in 2002 she won the women’s slalom, giant slalom and downhill skiing events.
  • Sophie Pascoe represented New Zealand in para-swimming at the 2008, 2012, 2016 and 2020 Paralympic Games. Her 11 gold, seven silver and one bronze medals make her New Zealand’s most successful Olympian. At Rio de Janeiro in 2016, she broke her own SM10 class world record for the 200-metre butterfly. In 2019, reclassified to S9 class, she set new world records in the 50-metre and 100-metre backstroke, 50-metre and 100-metre butterfly and 200-metre individual medley. Pascoe is a seven-time winner of the Halberg Para Athlete of the Year award and has been a Sportswoman of the Year finalist. She became Dame Sophie Pascoe in the 2022 New Year Honours. 
  • Adam Hall, a two-time gold medallist, has represented New Zealand at five Games (2006, 2010, 2014, 2018, 2022) in Para alpine skiing. At the 2018 PyeongChang Paralympics he was awarded the Whang Yuon Dai Achievement Award, given to the two Paralympians at the Games who best embodied the spirit of the Paralympic Movement, Hall is the only New Zealander to have received this award. He was named Para Athlete of the Year at the 2019 Halberg Awards.
  • Liam Malone won the T44 200-metre and 400-metre track events at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics, both in record time. 
  • Anna Grimaldi won the T47 long jump at both the 2016 Rio de Janeiro and 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.
  • Corey Peters won the downhill sitting and super-G sitting alpine skiing events at the 2022 Beijing Paralympics.

Commonwealth Paraplegic Games, 1962–74

Pompey Heremaia was New Zealand’s first representative in an international athletics competition for people with disabilities. Heremaia took part in the first Commonwealth Paraplegic Games at Perth in 1962. He won gold medals for the javelin and snooker.

Straight shooting

When able-bodied athletes at the 1984 Olympics suggested that Neroli Fairhall had an advantage shooting from a sitting position, she responded, ‘I don’t know. I’ve never shot standing up.’1

The Commonwealth Paraplegic Games were held in the Commonwealth Games’ host country, either immediately before or after the able-bodied games. The Auckland and Otago–Southland regional associations were involved in selecting a New Zealand team for the 1966 games in Kingston, Jamaica. The team comprised 10 athletes – seven from Auckland and three from Dunedin. The third Commonwealth Paraplegic Games was held at Edinburgh in 1970.

The fourth Commonwealth Paraplegic Games took place in Dunedin in January 1974, immediately prior to the 10th British Commonwealth Games in Christchurch. A total of 225 athletes from 13 countries took part. The events attracted substantial crowds, with 6,000 attending the opening ceremony. New Zealand athletes performed well, coming third in terms of total medals, with 29 golds, 20 silvers and 24 bronzes. The Dunedin games received more extensive media coverage in New Zealand than any previous disability sports event, and was the catalyst for a disability legacy fund, Paraloan.

Despite the success of the Dunedin games, they were the last. The Commonwealth Paraplegic Games were discontinued on grounds of cost and logistical difficulties.

Para sport at the Commonwealth Games

The 1994 Commonwealth Games at Victoria, British Columbia, included competitions for Para athletes as exhibition events. At Manchester in 2002, Para sports were integrated into the main programme for the first time.

The Commonwealth Games is the peak event between Olympic Games for New Zealand’s Para athletes. Leading the way has been Sophie Pascoe, with five gold medals in the pool, two in Delhi (2014), two more on the Gold Coast (2018) and one in Birmingham (2022). In 2018 Pascoe became the first Para athlete to be New Zealand’s flag-bearer at the opening ceremony.

  1. ‘Obituary: Neroli Fairhall’, New Zealand Herald, 17 June 2006, (last accessed 23 May 2012). Back
How to cite this page:

Ian McDonald, 'Disability sport - Paralympics and Commonwealth Games', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 6 March 2024)

Story by Ian McDonald, published 5 Sep 2013, updated 1 Feb 2022 with assistance from Catriona McBean