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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Paralympic Games are an elite sporting event for athletes with physical and visual disabilities. Ludwig Guttman, head of the spinal injuries centre at Stoke Mandeville hospital in England, organised the first Stoke Mandeville Games for disabled athletes, mostly ex-servicemen, in 1948. Guttmann wanted to develop these games into an international event, the equivalent of an Olympics for disabled athletes. The first Paralympic Games were held in Rome in 1960. In the 21st century the Paralympics were held every four years, following the Olympic Games. They are governed by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC).
In order to compete, Paralympic athletes must fit into one of 10 eligible impairment types. These include Visual Impairment, Intellectual Impairment, and eight different types of Physical Impairment:
In most paralympic sports, athletes compete in graded competitions, with participants placed into sport classes according to what they are capable of doing. This is somewhat similar to grouping athletes by age, gender or weight. Each event has its own classification system, and a sport class is not necessarily made up of athletes with the same impairment.
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. There were 15 athletes in the first New Zealand Paralympic team, attending the 3rd Paralympic Games at Tel Aviv, Israel, in 1968.
New Zealand has produced many outstanding Paralympians.
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
New Zealand has continued to win medals at Paralympic Games. At Beijing in 2008, 30 athletes competing in seven sports won 12 medals (five gold, three silver and four bronze). Swimmer Sophie Pascoe won three gold medals and one silver. New Zealand was represented at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Paralympic Games by two athletes, with Adam Hall winning gold in the standing slalom. At the 2012 London Paralympics, New Zealand’s 24 athletes won 17 medals (six gold, seven silver and four bronze). Sophie Pascoe won three gold and three silver medals. In 2014, three athletes represented New Zealand, with Corey Peters winning a silver in giant slalom, sitting. At the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics, the 31 New Zealand athletes won 21 medals: nine gold, five silver, and seven bronze. Sophie Pascoe won three gold and two silver medals.
The Special Olympics movement began in the United States, where it was founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver 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 over 170 countries around the world.
Alex Snedden has been a Special Olympics athlete since 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. In 2012 the movement had a network throughout New Zealand, with 6,000 athletes able to train and compete in 13 different summer and winter sports. Special Olympics run more than 200 events around the country annually. Over 2,500 volunteers provide support, facilitated through a network of regional sports coordinators.
Special Olympics helps athletes with intellectual disabilities achieve their full potential through athlete leadership programmes, health and wellbeing 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.
Deaf people compete in sporting competitions with hearing athletes, but also hold 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. 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. They are held every two years, alternating between summer and winter games. The Deaf Amateur Sports Association was formed in New Zealand in 1963. In 2001 it became the Deaf Sport Federation of New Zealand.
In 2008 Erich Krogmann of Palmerston North competed in the 48th New Zealand Deaf Games. He also played with hearing teammates in rugby and cricket teams. Krogmann communicated with his hearing teammates in a number of ways, using a combination of hand gestures, body movements and written notes. As Krogmann captained both his school rugby and cricket teams it is clear that the communication methods he developed were effective.
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, swimming, shooting, table tennis, tennis volleyball, freestyle wresting and Greco-Roman wrestling. New Zealander Johannes Ooterman won a gold medal in the individual time trial. New Zealand also won two silver and four bronze medals.
Following the Education Amendment Act 1987, children with disabilities were brought into the mainstream education system. This in turn led many young people with disabilities to expect the same sporting opportunities as were enjoyed by their able-bodied peers. The Hillary Commission was set up by the government to get more people involved in sport and physical fitness. In 1998 the commission developed the No Exceptions Strategy to encourage sporting activities among people with intellectual, physical or sensory disabilities.
From 2002 this strategy was implemented by the government organisation SPARC (Sport and Recreation New Zealand), which in 2012 changed its name to Sport New Zealand. Sport New Zealand administers the No Exceptions investment, a targeted contestable fund for organisations involved in promoting sport among people with disabilities. The goals of this approach are to increase participation by disabled people in sport, build up capabilities and provide more opportunities.
Before 1974 disabled sport received limited media coverage, mostly in 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. Disabled 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.
The Halberg Trust was established in 1963 by Murray Halberg, who was inspired by fundraising efforts for disabled sport in Toronto, Canada. In 2012 the organisation changed its name to the Halberg Disability Sport Foundation. The foundation is committed to helping young people with a disability participate in sport and active leisure. Its regional advisers work with clubs and schools to provide opportunities for training and competition.
The foundation's major fundraising event is the annual Halberg Awards, which recognise sporting excellence. In 2011 a new award was added, the Halberg Disability Sport Foundation Disabled Sportsperson of the Year, for which disabled sportspeople and teams were eligible. The inaugural winner was swimmer Sophie Pascoe.
Gray, Alison. Against the odds: New Zealand Paralympians. Auckland: Hodder Moa Beckett, 1997.
This website explains what deaf sports are and gives information about the history of Deaf Sports New Zealand.
This website provides information about the work of the Halberg Disability Sport Foundation.
The website of Paralympics New Zealand, detailing the organisation’s functions, development and history.
Special Olympics New Zealand offers training and competition for people with intellectual disabilities.
This 1996 documentary features the New Zealand team at the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta.
A 1993 documentary about the 13 New Zealanders who competed at the Barcelona Paralympics in 1992.