Posted on Friday 2nd October, 2020

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.

Neroli Fairhall at the opening ceremony of the 1894 Olympic Games
Paralympian #17 Neroli Fairhall at the Los Angeles 1984 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.

AthleteCountryParalympic GamesPara SportOlympic GamesSport
Neroli FairhallNew ZealandArnhem 1980
Seoul 1988
Sydney 2000
Para archeryLos Angeles 1984Archery
Pal SzekeresHungaryBarcelona 1992
Atlanta 1996
Sydney 2000
Athens 2004
Beijing 2008
London 2012
Para fencingSeoul 1988Fencing
Sonia VettenburgBelgiumNew York & Stoke Mandeville 1984
Seoul 1988
Shooting Para sportBarcelona 1992Shooting
Paola FantatoItalySeoul 1988
Barcelona 1992
Atlanta 1996
Sydney 2000
Athens 2004
Para archeryAtlanta 1996Archery
Marla RunyanUSABarcelona 1992
Atlanta 1996
Para athleticsSydney 2000
Athens 2004
Athletics
Orazio FagoneItalyTurin 2006
Vancouver 2010
Para ice hockeyCalgary 1988
Albertville 1992
Lillehammer 1994
Short track
Natalia PartykaPolandSydney 2000
Athens 2004
Beijing 2008
London 2012
Rio 2016
Para table tennisBeijing 2008
London 2012
Rio 2016
Table tennis
Natalie du ToitSouth AfricaAthens 2004
Beijing 2008
London 2012
Para swimmingBeijing 2008Swimming
Oscar PistoriusSouth AfricaAthens 2004
Beijing 2008
London 2012
Para athleticsLondon 2012Athletics
Assunta LegnanteItalyLondon 2012
Rio 2016
Para athleticsBeijing 2008Athletics
Pepo PuchAustriaLondon 2012
Rio 2016
Para equestrianAthens 2004Equestrian
Ilke WyluddaGermanyLondon 2012Para athleticsBarcelona 1992
Atlanta 1996
Sydney 2000
Athletics
Zahra NematiIranLondon 2012
Rio 2016
Para archeryRio 2016Archery
Melissa TapperAustraliaLondon 2012
Rio 2016
Para table tennisRio 2016Table tennis
Sandra PaovicCroatiaRio 2016Para table tennisBeijing 2008Table 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.