Story: Disabled sport

Page 2. Paralympics

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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.

  1. ‘Obituary: Neroli Fairhall’, New Zealand Herald, 17 June 2006, (last accessed 23 May 2012). Back
How to cite this page:

Ian McDonald, 'Disabled sport - Paralympics', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 January 2022)

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