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News posted on Friday 2nd October, 2020

Could some Paralympic athletes compete against Olympic athletes?

Close up legs of runner on athletics track with a blade

It’s not really a question of whether they could. Para athletes have been competing against non-disabled Olympic 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 (opens a new tab), 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.

Neroli Fairhall at the opening ceremony of the 1894 Olympic 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,
Seoul 1988,
Sydney 2000

Para archery

Los Angeles 1984

Archery

Pal Szekeres

Hungary

Barcelona 1992,
Atlanta 1996,
Sydney 2000,
Athens 2004,
Beijing 2008,
London 2012

Para fencing

Seoul 1988

Fencing

Sonia Vettenburg

Belgium

New York & Stoke Mandeville 1984
Seoul 1988

Shooting Para sport

Barcelona 1992

Shooting

Paola Fantato

Italy

Seoul 1988,
Barcelona 1992,
Atlanta 1996,
Sydney 2000,
Athens 2004

Para archery

Atlanta 1996

Archery

Marla Runyan

USA

Barcelona 1992,
Atlanta 1996

Para athletics

Sydney 2000 Athens 2004

Athletics

Orazio Fagone

Italy

Turin 2006,
Vancouver 2010

Para ice hockey

Calgary 1988
Albertville 1992
Lillehammer 1994

Short track

Natalia Partyka

Poland

Sydney 2000,
Athens 2004,
Beijing 2008,
London 2012,
Rio 2016

Para table tennis

Beijing 2008
London 2012
Rio 2016

Table tennis

Natalie du Toit

South Africa

Athens 2004,
Beijing 2008,
London 2012

Para swimming

Beijing 2008

Swimming

Oscar Pistorius

South Africa

Athens 2004,
Beijing 2008,
London 2012

Para athletics

London 2012

Athletics

Assunta Legnante

Italy

London 2012,
Rio 2016

Para athletics

Beijing 2008

Athletics

Pepo Puch

Austria

London 2012
Rio 2016

Para equestrian

Athens 2004

Equestrian

Ilke Wyludda

Germany

London 2012

Para athletics

Barcelona 1992
Atlanta 1996
Sydney 2000

Athletics

Zahra Nemati

Iran

London 2012,
Rio 2016

Para archery

Rio 2016

Archery

Melissa Tapper

Australia

London 2012
Rio 2016

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.

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