There have always been athletes who have overcome disabilities to compete in sport. Runner Murray Halberg’s left arm was disabled by a rugby injury. He went on to become a gold medallist in the 5,000 metres at the 1960 Rome Olympics and won the 3-mile races at the Cardiff (1958) and Perth (1962) British Empire and Commonwealth Games.
The running man
Murray Halberg was born in Eketāhuna in 1933. Halberg was the first New Zealand athlete to run a mile in under four minutes. In 1984 he was awarded an MBE. He was knighted in 1988 and in 2008 was awarded the Order of New Zealand. The Halberg Trust was created in 1963 to support disabled children in sport. Halberg’s philosophy is that ‘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!’1
Until the 1960s the only organised sport training for people with disabilities was children’s swimming training, organised by branches of the Crippled Children Society. A number of disabled athletes who trained in Southland reached the provincial championships, with one taking part in the New Zealand championships.
Riding for the Disabled (RDA) was set up in New Zealand in 1962. In addition to having many therapeutic benefits, RDA enables disabled people to train for competitive equestrian events.
In 1965 disabled athletes formed their first paraplegic and physically disabled regional associations in Auckland and Otago–Southland. Father Leo Close, who had represented Ireland in the Paralympics, was instrumental in establishing organised sport for disabled people in New Zealand. The first inter-regional games were held at Christchurch in 1966. A Canterbury regional association was set up the next year, followed by a nationwide network of associations. The first National Disabled Championships took place in 1968, with 29 athletes competing.
Close to the mark
In 1959 Irishman Leo Close became the world’s first person with paraplegia to be ordained as a Catholic priest. Close was captain of the Irish team at the first Paralympics, in Rome in 1960, competing in javelin, shot put, archery and table tennis. Posted to Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1964, he stopped off on the way to compete at the Tokyo Paralympics. He represented New Zealand in the 1968 and 1972 Paralympics and at the 1974 Paraplegic Games in Dunedin.
Commonwealth Paraplegic Games, 1962–74
Pompey Heremaia was New Zealand’s first representative in an international disabled athletics competition. Heremaia took part in the first Commonwealth Paraplegic Games at Perth in 1962. He won gold medals for the javelin and snooker.
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 consisted of 10 athletes – seven from Auckland and three from Dunedin. Two further Commonwealth Paraplegic Games were held, at Edinburgh in 1970 and at Dunedin in 1974.
Rugby, bells and balls
Boccia is a sport played by people with a high level of cerebral palsy. It is similar to bowls, but played on a wooden court. The athlete’s aim is to get a leather ball as close to the jack as possible.
Goalball is specifically designed for visually impaired people. The ball has a bell. Teams try to throw the ball through the opponents’ goal, while the defenders try to deflect it.
Wheelchair rugby is designed for people with tetraplegia, all four limbs affected by a disability. Teams of four try to carry the ball across the opponents’ goal line. Full wheelchair contact is allowed between opposing team members.
The 4th Commonwealth Paraplegic Games in Dunedin were held 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, including 6,000 for the opening ceremony. New Zealand athletes performed well, coming third in terms of total medals, with 29 gold medals, 20 silver and 24 bronze. The Dunedin games received more extensive media coverage in New Zealand than any previous disabled sporting event.
Despite the success of the Dunedin games they were the last. The Commonwealth Paraplegic Games were discontinued due to the high costs and logistical difficulties involved in staging them. From 1994, starting with the Commonwealth Games at Victoria, British Columbia, events for disabled athletes were included in the Commonwealth Games.