Could some Paralympic athletes compete against Olympic athletes?
It’s not really a question of whether they could. Para athletes have been competing against able-bodied rivals for over 100 years, long before the formation of the Paralympic Games in 1960.
As far back as 1904, American Gymnast George Eyser, who had a wooden leg, competed at the Olympic Games held in St Louis, Missouri. Not only did Eyser compete, he went home with six medals to his name: three gold, two silvers, and a bronze.
When we talk about Paralympic athletes competing against Olympic athletes, there are numerous examples of New Zealand athletes doing just this.
In 1984, New Zealander Neroli Fairhall became the first Para athlete in the world to compete in the Olympic Games, affording New Zealand the ability to create a small piece of history.
Neroli Fairhall – a Paralympic Hall of Fame inductee
Born in Christchurch in 1944, Neroli Fairhall took up Para archery following a motorbike accident which paralysed her from the waist down.
Paralympic legend Fairhall competed in Para athletics and Para archery at her first two Paralympic Games in Heidelberg 1972 and Arnhem 1980, but it was in Para archery that she excelled, taking gold in Arnhem in 1980.
Four years later, she became the first Para athlete to also compete at the Olympics, finishing 35th in the archery competition at Los Angeles 1984. She also represented New Zealand at the Seoul 1988 and Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games.
Fairhall passed away in 2006 at the age of 61. She was posthumously inducted into the Paralympic Hall of Fame during the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
Paralympic athletes who have competed at the Olympic Games
Since Fairhall’s appearance at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games, a further 14 Para athletes have competed at both a Paralympic and Olympic Games in 2020.
Para athletes competed at an Olympic Games prior to acquiring their disability, however 6 athletes to compete in the Paralympic and Olympic Games in the same year.
|Athlete||Country||Paralympic Games||Para Sport||Olympic Games||Sport|
|Neroli Fairhall||New Zealand||Arnhem 1980|
|Para archery||Los Angeles 1984||Archery|
|Pal Szekeres||Hungary||Barcelona 1992|
|Para fencing||Seoul 1988||Fencing|
|Sonia Vettenburg||Belgium||New York & Stoke Mandeville 1984 |
|Shooting Para sport||Barcelona 1992||Shooting|
|Paola Fantato||Italy||Seoul 1988|
|Para archery||Atlanta 1996||Archery|
|Marla Runyan||USA||Barcelona 1992|
|Para athletics||Sydney 2000|
|Orazio Fagone||Italy||Turin 2006|
|Para ice hockey||Calgary 1988|
|Natalia Partyka||Poland||Sydney 2000|
|Para table tennis||Beijing 2008|
|Natalie du Toit||South Africa||Athens 2004|
|Para swimming||Beijing 2008||Swimming|
|Oscar Pistorius||South Africa||Athens 2004|
|Para athletics||London 2012||Athletics|
|Assunta Legnante||Italy||London 2012|
|Para athletics||Beijing 2008||Athletics|
|Pepo Puch||Austria||London 2012|
|Para equestrian||Athens 2004||Equestrian|
|Ilke Wyludda||Germany||London 2012||Para athletics||Barcelona 1992|
|Zahra Nemati||Iran||London 2012|
|Para archery||Rio 2016||Archery|
|Melissa Tapper||Australia||London 2012|
|Para table tennis||Rio 2016||Table tennis|
|Sandra Paovic||Croatia||Rio 2016||Para table tennis||Beijing 2008||Table tennis|
Table source: Wikipedia
Paralympic and Olympic Medal Winners
Whilst we have seen Para athletes competing in the Olympic Games, we have not yet seen the moment when a Para athlete takes home an Olympic medal.
There is only one Para athlete who has won an Olympic medal prior to acquiring their disability who has since gone on to win medals at the Paralympic Games. Hungarian fencer Pal Szekeres won a bronze medal at the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games and, following a bus accident which left him a paraplegic, Szekeres went on to win three gold medals and three bronze medals in Para fencing across 5 Paralympic Games.
Para athletes continue to push boundaries
In 2016, new ground was broken by Para athletes in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. The first four Para athletes to cross the line in the 1,500m final for visually impaired athletes all smashed the time set in the 1,500m final at the Olympic Games held a month earlier.
Whilst the Olympic 1,500m event was a very tactical race the achievement of the top four Para athletes should not be underestimated.
Abdellatif Baka of Algeria stormed to gold in a world-record time of 3:48.29, followed by Tamiru Demisse of Ethiopia with silver and Henry Kirwa of Kenya with bronze. Remarkably Abdellatif’s brother Fouad, who just missed out on the podium in fourth place, finished in a time of 3:49.84, which would still have been fast enough to win Olympic gold.
What next for Para athletes at the Olympic Games?
From the early Kiwi trailblazer Fairhall, inspiration comes from all corners of the globe, with decades of history providing an answer to the question posed in the title of this post.
Whilst some Para athletes may aspire to compete at an Olympic Games, many Paralympians have suggested that they would not want to compete at an Olympic Games as they are staunchly proud of being a Paralympian and proud of what the Paralympic Movement has become and means to them.
We will watch this space with interest.