Key points

  • The Paralympic Games in Sydney from October next year will be the biggest ever, with 4,000 athletes from 125 countries, competing in 560 events across 18 sports.
  • The Paralympics – derived from the word ‘parallel’ – are expected to attract 650,000 spectators and a television audience of 50 million.
  • Sailing and wheelchair rugby, which were demonstration sports at the Atlanta 1996 Games, are two new Paralympic sports for Sydney.
  • Facilities in Sydney have impressed International Paralympic Committee members, with IPC president Robert Steadwood noting that not since the first Games in Rome in 1960 have the majority of sports venues been so close together.

Sydney is gearing up for a highly successful Paralympic Games, the world’s elite sporting competition for athletes with a disability.

The Paralympics will run from October 18 to 29, starting 17 days after the Olympic Games. Like the Olympics, the Paralympics are held every four years, using the same venues in the same city. Gold, silver and bronze medals are won at the Paralympics in much the same way they are at the Olympics. Like the Olympics, the Paralympics has a separate torch relay, a mascot and a logo.

The scale of the Paralympics is not always appreciated. In Sydney, 4,000 athletes from 125 countries are expected to compete, making the Paralympic Games larger than any previous Paralympics. The Paralympics will be bigger than the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games, the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympic Games and the 1998 Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games. They will cost over A$156 million to stage and are expected to attract about 650,000 spectators and a television audience of 50 million.
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The Sydney 2000 Paralympic program includes 18 sports – 14 of them also included in the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games program. Sailing and wheelchair rugby are two new Paralympic sports for Sydney. They were demonstration sports at the Atlanta 1996 Paralympic Games.

The name Paralympic derives from the word ‘parallel’ – not ‘paraplegic’ or ‘paralysed’ as some people mistakenly believe. The Paralympics grew out of a sports meeting held in 1948 for disabled ex-serviceman at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, England. It was held parallel to the 1948 London Olympics, hence the name. The Paralympic movement will celebrate its 40th anniversary at the 2000 Games in Sydney.

In Sydney, Paralympic archery, athletics, basketball, boccia, fencing, football, goalball, judo, powerlifting, swimming, table tennis, tennis, volleyball and wheelchair rugby will take place in Sydney Olympic Park. Four other Paralympic events – cycling, equestrian, sailing and shooting – will be held within 30 minutes of the park.

Accessible facilities

Every level within Sydney Showground will be accessible by wheelchair, with battery recharging points for wheelchairs and scooters within easy reach. A listening system in the main arena will help people with hearing impairment, while tactile floor tiles at the Homebush Bay Ferry Wharf will help those with little or no vision to find their way to and from ferries and buses. At the Olympic Park Railway Station, lifts are being fitted with wheelchair-level buttons and audio and visual warning and communication systems. Tactile floor tiles also indicate the edge of the platforms.

Facilities for the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games have impressed International Paralympic Committee (IPC) members.

‘Not since our first Games in Rome in 1960 have I seen the majority of sports so close together,’ said IPC president Robert Steadwood on a visit to Sydney Olympic Park last year.

Dr Steadwood said he had ‘never seen the quality of care, attention to development and depth of cooperation’ between the Olympic and Paralympic Games taken to the extent reached in Sydney. ‘The delegates can go home and tell their national Paralympic Committees that all is very well out here in Sydney.’ he commented.

Mayor takes office

The Paralympic Games scored a coup by securing the services of Australia’s former Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer as mayor of the Athletes’ Village. Traditionally, the athletes’ villages at both the Olympics and the Paralympics have mayors. Mayor of the Olympic Athlete’s Village is Graham Richardson, a former federal minister and powerbroker of the Australian Labor Party.

Mr Fischer is one of the few parliamentarians genuinely admired by colleagues from all sides of politics. He accepted the Paralympic appointment after his wife convinced him it wouldn’t break his pledge for a more relaxed life. Mr Fischer, 53, resigned as Deputy Prime Minister in June to spend more time with his wife and two young sons, earning him great respect both inside and outside Parliament. His family will live with him in the village throughout the Paralympic Games. Mr Fischer will look after a record number of athletes at the Village in Newington, next to Sydney Olympic Park.

In much the same way as the Olympic torch, the Paralympic torch will travel widely. The Paralympic flame will make an 11,500-kilometre journey, carried by 920 torchbearers who will take the flame from Canberra on October 5, 2000, to the opening ceremony of the Paralympics at Sydney Olympic Park on October 18.

Dramatic growth

The Paralympic Games have grown dramatically since their debut in Rome in 1960, a few weeks after the Rome Olympic Games. Since then, the two events have shared cities four more times (Tokyo 1964, Seoul 1988, Barcelona 1992, and Atlanta 1996). They will do so again in Sydney in 2000.

As the Paralympic movement evolved, various classes of participants were added. The 1976 Paralympic Games in Toronto, Canada, were the first to include amputees and athletes who were blind or who had a visual impairment. Athletes with cerebral palsy joined as participants in the 1980 Paralympic Games in Arnhem, the Netherlands.

As well as its own logo, the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games has its own mascot, a frill-necked lizard named Lizzie. Lizzie was chosen to carry the Paralympic message of performance, power and pride. The frill-necked lizard, native to Australia, suits the role well. Known for its tenacity and will to survive, the spirited reptile dwells in the harsh, tropical climate of far north Australia, where flood and drought are common. The lizard, which can run faster than a person jogging, uses its neck frill to confuse menacing predators.

A few differences distinguish Lizzie from your average frill-necked lizard. For a start, Lizzie has a wide and engaging smile. And the shape of her frill bears a surprising resemblance to the outline of Australia.

Australia’s proud record

Paralympic Games organisers have got into the swing of things to the extent of compiling Lizzie’s personality profile. You can learn about her favourite foods (ants and bugs – the bigger they are, the louder they crunch), her favourite entertainer (John Travolta) and other points of interest.

As for Lizzie’s best mates, she nominates Syd, Ozzie and Millie. Just as well, because she sees a lot of them. The trio are the mascots for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Syd the platypus is named after Sydney; Millie the echidna is named after the millennium and Olly the kookaburra is named after the Olympics.

Australia traditionally does well in the Paralympics. It finished second in the medal tally in Atlanta, with 42 gold, 37 silver and 27 bronze. Australian Paralympians set 18 world records and six Paralympic records. They were leading the world until the second last day, when they were overtaken by the Americans, a team almost twice their size. Among Australia’s Paralympic stars were wheelchair athlete Louise Sauvage and swimmer Priya Cooper, who between them have won 15 gold medals and set more than a dozen world records at the Barcelona 1992 and Atlanta 1996 Paralympic Games.

Elite athletes with disabilities have been using the facilities of Australia’s prestigious Institute of Sport (AIS) in Canberra since it was established in 1981. The first AIS scholarship to an athlete with a disability was awarded in 1989 to the visually impaired field athlete Russell Short for a place in the AIS track and field program. The program now assists 30 world-ranked athletes.

Elite athletes with disabilities whom the AIS has helped prepare and develop include:

  • Michael Milton, an alpine skier whose leg was amputated below the knee when he was nine, and who went on to become the first Australian to win a gold medal at a Winter Olympics or Paralympics when he won the slalom at the Albertville Winter Paralympic Games in 1992. At the 2000 World Championships in Switzerland, in March, he won 3 golds to show he is on track for the 2002 Salt Lake City Paralympics.
  • Louise Sauvage, a wheelchair track and road athlete, triple gold medallist at the 1992 Barcelona Paralympics, who won gold medals in the 100-metre, 200-metre and 400-metre wheelchair track events and a silver medal in the 800-metre event. In Atlanta in 1996 she won golds in the 400m, 800m, 1500m and 5,000m.
  • Joseph Walker, who made history by winning all nine swimming events in which he competed at the 1992 Paralympics in Madrid.
  • Priya Cooper, who won five gold medals at the 1994 World Swimming Championships for the Disabled. She won three gold in Barcelona in the pool, five in Atlanta and was the Australian Flag Bearer at the Atlanta Closing Ceremony.
  • Lisa Llorens, who as a 16-year-old at the 1994 IPC World Athletics Championships, won silver medals in the long jump and 200 metres. In Atlanta, in 1996, she won the long jump gold and set a new world record.

    A final question: just how good are Paralympic athletes? The answer is very good indeed. US vision-impaired swimmer Tricia Zorn came within one hundredth of a second of qualifying for the US Olympic team in 1992. The differences between Olympic and Paralympic records are closer than many people realise.

    For further information, visit the ATC media site at http://www.media.australia.com.