Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Disabled 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!’ commented athlete and Olympic gold medallist Murray Halberg, whose left arm was disabled by a rugby injury. Many of New Zealand’s athletes with disabilities have reached their personal best at national and international level.

Development of disabled sport

Early years

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.



Origins and development

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:

  • Impaired muscle power
  • Impaired passive range of movement
  • Loss of limb or limb deficiency 
  • Leg-length difference
  • Short stature
  • Hypertonia (an excess of muscle tone, resulting in limbs that are stiff and difficult to move)
  • Ataxia (lack of coordination of muscle movements)
  • Athetosis (involuntary muscle movements)

Paralympic grading

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.

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. There were 15 athletes in the first New Zealand Paralympic team, attending the 3rd Paralympic Games at Tel Aviv, Israel, in 1968.

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 silver and one bronze. Like many disabled athletes, Rimmer took part in a range of sports. Most of her medals were for field events, but she twice won gold for the pentathlon and won silver for swimming and archery.
  • 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 held six world records for wheelchair racing. She also held world records for discus, javelin and shot put and played for the New Zealand wheelchair rugby team.
  • Duane Kale, a para-swimmer, 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.
  • Patrick Cooper competed in para-alpine skiing and won gold in the slalom and supergiant slalom at both the 1992 Tignes-Albertville and 1994 Lillehammer Winter Paralympics.
  • 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.
  • Sophie Pascoe represented New Zealand in para-swimming at the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Paralympic Games. Her nine gold and six silver medals make her New Zealand’s most successful Paralympian. At Rio de Janeiro in 2016, she broke her own SM10 class world record for the 200m butterfly with a time of 2:24.90. Pascoe is a four-time winner of the Halberg Disabled Sportsperson of the Year award and has been a Sportswoman of the Year finalist. 

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

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.


Special Olympics and Deaflympics

Special Olympics

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

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 sport and the Deaflympics

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.

Sports communication

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.

Promoting disabled sport

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.

Who’s in the news?

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.

Halberg Disability Sport Foundation

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.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Ian McDonald, 'Disabled sport', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 September 2021)

He kōrero nā Ian McDonald, i tāngia i te 5 Sep 2013, reviewed & revised 2 Aug 2017