Story: Disabled sport

‘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!’, commented the Olympic champion athlete Murray Halberg, whose left arm was disabled by a rugby injury. Many of New Zealand’s athletes with disabilities have reached national or international level.

Story by Ian McDonald
Main image: Sophie Pascoe, Halberg Award winner, 2011

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The development of disabled sport

Murray Halberg’s gold-medal performance in the 5,000 metres at the 1960 Rome Olympics highlighted the potential of athletes with disabilities. Paralympian Leo Close helped organise sport for disabled people, with the first inter-regional games held at Christchurch in 1966. New Zealand disabled athletes now perform on the international stage.

The Commonwealth Games

The Commonwealth Paraplegic Games were held every four years between 1962 and 1974, just before or after the able-bodied games. High costs and practical difficulties led to the last separate games being held at Dunedin in 1974. From 1994 events for disabled athletes were included in the Commonwealth Games. Since 2002 disabled athletes have been full members of their national teams.


Rome hosted the first Paralympics in 1960. They are held every four years, a month after the Olympic Games. Athletes are placed into classes based on their impairment and compete at graded levels. The first Paralympics New Zealand attended was in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 1968. New Zealand has won many medals in both the summer and winter Paralympic Games.

Special Olympics and Deaflympics

The Special Olympics movement was founded in America in 1968 to provide Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Special Olympics New Zealand was founded in 1983. Star performers at regional and national events qualified for the Special Olympics World Summer and World Winter Games.

The Deaflympics started in 1924 as the International Silent Games. They are held every two years, with summer and winter sports alternating. Christchurch hosted the 1989 games, in which 995 athletes from 30 countries competed.

Promoting disabled sport

From 1987, children with disabilities were brought into the mainstream education system and sought the same opportunities as their able-bodied friends. In 1998 the Hillary Commission developed a No Exceptions strategy which encouraged people with disabilities to play sport.

The Halberg Disability Sport Foundation, founded by Murray Halberg, raises funds to help provide sporting opportunities for young people with disabilities. Since 2011, the annual Halberg Awards have included an award for Disabled Sportsperson of the Year.

How to cite this page:

Ian McDonald, 'Disabled sport', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 May 2022)

Story by Ian McDonald, published 5 Sep 2013, reviewed & revised 2 Aug 2017