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Disability sport

by Ian McDonald

‘Every New Zealander no matter what their ability has the right to participate in the sport or active recreation pursuit of their choice – there are no exceptions!’, stated Olympic gold medallist runner Murray Halberg, whose left arm was paralysed in a rugby accident. New Zealand athletes with disabilities have excelled at national and international level.

Development of disability sport

Government policy

When the first Labour government passed the Physical Welfare and Recreation Act 1937, members of Parliament agreed in principle on the need to improve the physical fitness of every New Zealander. The Auckland Primary Schools Sports Association had found that 15% of schoolchildren were not participating in sport, for reasons that included physical disability. 

Following the outbreak of the second world war, little attention was given to disability sport until the third Labour government passed the Recreation and Sport Act 1973. Under this Act, an Advisory Committee for Recreation for the Disabled (ACORD) was established to provide advice on matters relating to disability sport. Members of ACORD were selected for their general knowledge of and interest in disability sport. This was the first government initiative specifically designed to increase sporting participation by New Zealanders with disabilities.

The United Nations International Year of Disabled Persons in 1981 was a call to raise awareness and understanding of disability and improve the lives of disabled people. One in 10 New Zealanders were identified as living with disabilities. Regional committees were established to promote their participation in ‘normal’ sport and sport deliverers became more aware of their needs. The impact of this campaign was short-lived.

The Hillary Commission was established in 1987 to facilitate equal opportunities for sports participation by all New Zealanders, but it was another decade before the first No Exceptions strategy to improve the quality of life of disabled people through participation and achievement in sport was produced. 

SPARC (Sport and Recreation New Zealand), which replaced the Hillary Commission in 2003, produced an updated No Exceptions strategy and implementation plan in 2005. Essentially no different to the earlier plan, this document aligned with the first New Zealand Disability Strategy. Lead agencies including Special Olympics New Zealand received funding from SPARC to assist with the delivery of this strategy. Paralympics New Zealand’s focus on high-performance sport was supported by High Performance Sport New Zealand funding, while the Halberg Foundation was delegated responsibility for allocating approximately $300,000 per annum to community disability sport.

In 2019 Sport New Zealand (the successor to SPARC) research found that New Zealanders with disabilities continued to have less involvement in sport and active recreation than their able-bodied counterparts. In response, a third disability plan was released, with $7 million over three years committed to supporting regional and national sporting organisations to improve the delivery of disability sport at the community level.

Local disability sport delivery 

Disability sport has been primarily delivered at the local level. Many individuals and organisations have led the way. One such individual is Murray Halberg, who overcame a rugby injury at 17, which left his left arm withered, to win the 5,000 metres at the 1960 Rome Olympics. He had won the 3-mile race at the 1958 Cardiff British Empire and Commonwealth Games, and repeated this feat in Perth in 1962. In 1963, Murray established the Halberg Trust (now the Halberg Foundation) to enhance the lives of New Zealanders with physical disabilities by enabling them to participate in sport and recreation.

Father Leo Close, who represented Ireland in the International Paraplegic Games (1957, 1961, 1962, 1963) and the first two Paralympic Games (1960 and 1964), helped establish organised sport for people with disabilities in New Zealand after settling in Dunedin in 1964. Father Leo represented New Zealand at the 1968 and 1972 Paralympic Games and was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1975 for services to the paraplegic movement. 

Until the 1960s the only organised sport for people with disabilities was children’s swimming, organised by branches of the Crippled Children Society (CCS). A number of Southland-based disabled swimmers competed in the provincial championships, and one took part in the New Zealand championships.

In 1965 disabled athletes formed the first paraplegic and physically disabled regional association in Auckland. This was followed by Canterbury (1967), Wellington (1969), and 14 others over the years. Often referred to as the Parafed Network, these regional organisations provide a range of sport and active recreation opportunities for people with physical disabilities around the country. 

The first inter-regional tournament was held at Christchurch in 1966. The first National Disabled Championships took place in 1968, with 29 athletes competing. The last Paralympics New Zealand national championships was held in Hamilton in 2011.

In 1992 CCS held the first Independence Games for disabled young people aged between eight and 17. This two-day event has been the entry point for many future Paralympians. Management of the Independence Games was transferred to the Halberg Foundation in 2017, and they are now known as the Halberg Games.

Disability and para sports

‘Para sports’ is the term for sports in which disabled athletes compete that are recognised by the International Paralympic Committee. Athletics, canoeing, cycling, shooting, skiing and swimming all offer para sport opportunities, and New Zealand has been successful in these sports. The term ‘disability sports’ is used for sports which are not recognised by the International Paralympic Committee. A network of national and regional disability sports organisations have provided a wide range of sport options over the years, and have run youth groups for disabled athletes. 

Some sports have been adapted from existing sports, such as cycling and skiing, and others have been created as new sports.

Examples of para and disability sports


Boccia is similar to bowls and pétanque, but played on a wooden-floored court, using leather balls. Seated athletes aim to get their balls as close to the jack as possible by throwing, kicking or using a ramp to propel them. A game of strategy and skill developed for athletes with a disability affecting locomotor function (movement), boccia can be played as an individual or team sport.

Goalball and five-a-side football 

Goalball was invented in Austria in 1946 to help rehabilitate blind war veterans. Because the sport is for visually impaired athletes, the ball has a bell in it. Teams of three, playing on a hard court, try to throw the ball across their opponents’ goal line, while the defenders try to prevent this. Five-a-side football is another sport for visually impaired athletes. Teams of five, using modified FIFA rules, play on a smaller than standard field, with all players except the goalkeeper blindfolded. Five-a-side football was added to the Paralympic programme in 2004.

Wheelchair basketball 

Like goalball, wheelchair basketball was developed by injured servicemen after the Second World War. It is played by teams of five on a standard basketball court with goals of standard height.

Wheelchair rugby

Wheelchair rugby is a fast-paced, full-contact sport played indoors on a basketball court. Eligible athletes have some loss of function in at least three limbs. Specially designed wheelchairs enable players in teams of four to block, charge and tackle, with the objective being to carry the ball across their opponents’ goal line. The New Zealand Wheel Blacks team won gold at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens.

Paralympics and Commonwealth Games

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.


Special Olympics and Deaflympics

Special Olympics

The Special Olympics movement was founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in the United States in 1968. Special Olympics’ aim is to provide year-round training and competition in Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. In the 2000s there were more than 3.7 million participating athletes in more than 170 countries.

Alex Snedden

Alex Snedden became a Special Olympics athlete in 2006, when he played basketball for Special Olympics Waitākere. Snedden, who has Down syndrome, worked as a youth advocate. He also volunteered for the Auckland Food Bank and for a youth disability camp. Snedden played basketball for Waitākere at the 2009 National Games. In 2010 he represented Special Olympics Tāmaki at two swim meets.

In 1983 Grant Quinn founded Special Olympics New Zealand in Lower Hutt. By 2012 the movement had a network throughout New Zealand, with 6,000 athletes training and competing in 13 summer and winter sports. Special Olympics ran more than 200 events around the country annually. More than 2,500 volunteers provided support, facilitated by a network of regional sports coordinators.

Special Olympics helps athletes with intellectual disabilities achieve their full potential through athlete leadership programmes, health and well-being services, and young athlete programmes.

In addition to local events, Special Olympics hold regional and national games. Athletes who compete in national events may become eligible for international competitions. The Special Olympics World Summer Games and World Winter Games are each held every four years, on an alternating two-year schedule. The 2019 World Summer Games team was the largest yet sent by New Zealand, with 43 athletes (including five Unified athletes without an intellectual disability), 21 coaches and support staff.

Deaf sport and the Deaflympics

Deaf people compete in sporting competitions with hearing athletes, but also in competitions specifically for deaf athletes. These competitions are not based on the idea that deaf athletes are at a disadvantage in competing with hearing athletes. Instead the movement grew from the desire for deaf athletes to compete against, and socialise with, others from the deaf community.

Sports communication

In 2008, Erich Krogmann of Palmerston North competed in the 48th New Zealand Deaf Games. He also played rugby and cricket alongside hearing teammates. Krogmann communicated with them through a combination of hand gestures, body movements and written notes. As Krogmann captained both his school rugby and cricket teams, the communication methods he developed were clearly effective.

In the 19th century deaf people began organising their own sports teams. The first deaf sports club was established in 1888, in Berlin. In 1924 Eugène Rubens-Alcais, who was himself deaf, organised the International Silent Games in Paris. These games were the first Deaflympics, attracting 148 athletes from nine countries. Since 1949 there has also been a Winter Deaflympics. These events are held every two years, alternating between summer and winter games. Now called Deaf Sport NZ, the Deaf Amateur Sports Association was formed in New Zealand in 1966.

In 1989 the 16th World Games for the Deaf, as the Deaflympics were then known, was held in Christchurch. A total of 995 athletes from 30 countries took part. The sports involved were athletics, badminton, basketball, road cycling, football, handball, shooting, swimming, table tennis, tennis volleyball, freestyle wrestling and Greco-Roman wrestling. New Zealander Johannes Ooterman won a gold medal in the individual cycling time trial. New Zealand also won two silver and four bronze medals.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Ian McDonald, 'Disability sport', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 April 2024)

Story by Ian McDonald, published 5 September 2013, updated 1 February 2022