My first involvement in para-sport happened before I joined the Australian Paralympic Committee. I was working for Swimming NSW as their Executive Director.
t that stage, Swimming Australia had employed one of the first staff members of any sport to look after “swimmers with a disability”. She wrote policies for the board and competition manuals for events, and managed to convince the Swimming Australia Board to incorporate multi-class events in the National Championships. Because I had some positive involvement during that process, they asked if Swimming NSW follow suit for their State Championships, which we did.
The multi-class inclusion was very successful, and within 3-4 years, every state in Australia had included multi-class events. This created an athlete pathway for swimmers with a disability. When I moved from Swimming NSW to SOCOG (Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games) and became the Competition Manager for swimming, I had to do the swimming program for the Olympic event and for the Paralympics. This also gave me the experience of dealing with the Technical Delegate from the International Paralympic Committee. The Olympic swimming event at Sydney was fantastic, but the Paralympic event really changed the way swimming events were seen for athletes with a disability. They became very serious athletes, training harder, which I’ve now seen develop through Athens, Beijing and London’s Paralympic Games.
In 2001, I began working with Swimming Australia, and at that stage, the national swimming program for para-swimmers was organised by the Australian Paralympic Committee (APC). In 2002, we were able to migrate that program into the Swimming Australia High Performance Program. We employed a head coach, picked the teams, did the training, selected staff and so on. Effectively, to be involved in para-swimming, you have to be part of a swimming club, so most of our swimmers were already in clubs and training in the same lanes as able-bodied athletes. We became the second sport to mainstream para athletes after Athletics Australia.
I finished up as CEO with Swimming Australia just before the 2008 Beijing Olympics and began working for Tennis NSW. There, we had 3 of the best wheelchair tennis players in Australia but without any structure or support. So we started a wheelchair tennis program at Sydney Olympic Park Tennis Centre, got a sponsor, and now our 3 players are world-ranked. Not long after, I had a phone call from the CEO of the APC, wondering if I’d be interested in becoming a Director (a volunteer role), given a few were retiring. I took that on, and from that, I was included in the IPC Swimming Committee, and then made Chairman.
INEQUALITY AND ISSUES IN PARA-SPORT
I have an inbuilt need for equality. I see so many inequalities with para-sport which are nobody’s fault, but still need to be fixed. In Rio, you will see two very good Australian teams who will perform well. The issue for the Paralympians is, while training just as hard as their counterparts on the Olympic team, they also have to manage their disability, whatever that may be. Yet the funding for the two is very different. The Paralympic team funding would be less than 25% of the Olympic team’s funding overall. There is about $130 million provided annually to high performance able-bodied sport, and there’s $30 million allocated to elite para-sport. It’s a big difference, and while I wouldn’t suggest it should be equal, if our funding was doubled, the potential to double our team size and resulting medal count would be enormous.
An issue for para-athletes recently, is that in the last 18 months, the Federal Government has been clamping down on social services fraud, which in itself is great. One of the decisions they made was, however, if you’re on a disability support pension and you go overseas for a certain period of time, the pension stops. A lot of our athletes are on disability support pensions but go overseas to train and can be away for 3 months, and therefore their pension is cut off. It’s not intended to be a problem, but there is a lack of foresight.
In addition, these athletes are subject to the same drug testing and doping policies as able-bodied, so they have to be very careful about what they do take to manage their various conditions. Our athletes have to be really good managers of everything they do in their lives.
We’ll be competing in 15 sports at the Paralympics, and of those 15, 13 are mainstream sports and are managed by their national sporting organisation (NSO). Those sports without a national body, the APC manages. Mainstream sports write their own selection criteria, which is signed off by the APC. They effectively choose their own athletes and the APC rubber stamps their selections.
For the sports that are not mainstream and therefore not managed by a national body, APC staff choose the athletes who will represent Australia. These are sports such as boccia and wheelchair rugby. The selection process is pretty clear cut and we have very few appeals, none for the last Paralympics in London. This is very different to the AOC who have a huge volume of athletes and sports, and their appeals can be more about character than performance. Our system isn’t completely infallible, however.
We collaborate closely with the AOC and share resources to ensure consistency across documentation and experience for the athletes at the Games. The teams stay in the same accommodation, in the same section of the Olympic Village. Even the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee have a joint marketing agreement.
RIO AND TOKYO
During the Games themselves, my role is to support the Chef de Mission if something should happen. I give advice, represent the Board, and act as a liaison between our team and the IPC. If there was an issue that needed a more senior authority, I would then get involved, but otherwise I’m the chief cheer squad!
Sailing was unfortunately dropped from the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics program because the International Sailing Federation didn’t build a strong enough case. Everyone, including Australian Sailing, is obviously unhappy about it. This happens because the Paralympic Games have specific core sports – cycling, athletics, swimming – which don’t have to apply for inclusion each cycle. All other sports need to do so to stay on the program for the Games, and the International Sailing Federation’s application didn’t meet the IPC standards for inclusion, so they were dropped. As a result, we’ll be dealing with two new sports in 2020 that are both very popular in Asia – Badminton and Taekwondo.
After Rio, the team is evaluated and an official report is compiled on all our performances – by sport and by athlete – and we’ll be trying to build a case to go to the Government via the Australian Sports Commission to see if we can get some funding for the new sports, as well as the existing sports.
A fair amount of the Paralympic coaches come from able-bodied sports and from specific para-sport pathways. For example, the Wheelchair Rugby coach, Brad Dubberley, was a wheelchair rugby player himself. He’s never coached able-bodied rugby. However, on the swimming team, there’s not a single coach on that team who doesn’t work with able-bodied athletes as well as para-athletes. The youngest swimmer on our Paralympic team for Rio is 14, and a world champion. Some coaches have a great reputation for excelling with para-athletes and so attract more to their program. There’s even a wheelchair rugby coach in Sydney who is a mainstream coach as well.
THE BIG ISSUE: CLASSIFICATION
The big issue with para-sport is the classification systems. A lot are being reworked at the moment. There’s more science being put into it, and it would be good to see the IPC move that process forward, perhaps more quickly. In Australia, classification is very under-funded. While the government gives us money for classification, we have a lot of trouble doing what we need to: educating classifiers and educating athletes.
The killer for us is when an athlete is classified and starts going to competitions, you can then have protests regarding their classification. If someone protests your classification, you have to build a case to defend it, which takes time and effort. We’ve only got one person working in that area, and while she’s very good, we just don’t have the resources to deal with it properly.
Using swimming as an example, there are two parts to the classification process. First, there’s the verification of significant medical evidence of an athlete’s impairment. Then, each athlete is observed both in and out of competition of an independent classification panel, who examine movement through water and classify each athlete based on their functional ability. Once both processes are complete, they give the athlete their classification. It’s a functional classification, so you’re either S1 through to S10. S1 being the most impaired, and S10 the least. There are also 3 visually impaired classes, and one intellectually impaired class.
There are classifiers in various sports around the country, and we have two on our staff. Many sports do not have that expertise in their office all the time. They will have someone looking after para-sport in general only. Our classification expert has to prepare a lot of documentation for all these other sport protests. Any given year, there’s a good number of protests, and there are more in a Paralympic year. Sometimes there is very little difference between two classes and a competitor’s classification comes down to the opinion of two people. If they are right on the line of being up or down a class, the classification can make a big difference, as a medallist in S5 would potentially be just a finalist in S6.
We’ll be pushing hard to have sailing re-included in future Paralympics, as our sailing team went well in Beijing and London and should go well in Rio. We don’t want athletes to have a disincentive to train. This is why many sports don’t want to be kicked out of the Olympics either, as it can be devastating for the sport. Personally, I would like to see some streamlining of the program for some sports. For example, swimming has 145 events on the program, which could do with some refinement.
Our stated mission for Rio is to finish in the top 5 countries. We’ve been in the top 5 since Barcelona 1992, and we were No.1 in Sydney 2000. The Brazillians were barely in the top 10 for London, but they’ve since poured a lot of money into para-sport in the last 4 years, and will be a big threat to us as a top 5 country.
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