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‘Let’s do 50/50’: What should the future of para sport look like?

When Australia’s Madison de Rozario won the women’s T53/54 marathon at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, there were only two athletes on the podium.

It was the same when Jess Gallagher and pilot Caitlin Ward won the women’s tandem B track cycling sprint finals.

Due to the small number of competitors in those events, no bronze medal was awarded.

Women wheelchair racers compete in an event on the road
There were only four competitors, two Australians and two English, in the women’s T53/54 marathon in Birmingham.(Getty Images: Alex Pantling)

It highlighted a conundrum facing the future of para sport, particularly at the Commonwealth Games.

How can you effectively achieve integration, while ensuring the gulf between the best and the rest doesn’t become a seismic divide?

The Commonwealth Games are the only major multi-sport event with an integrated para program, and this year it’s the biggest program in history, with 43 events across eight sports.

There are a total of 386 para athlete entries across 31 teams – noting that some athletes may be entered in more than one event/sport.

Eighty-six per cent of them come from just 10 countries: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, India and Nigeria.

Altogether, more than 5,000 athletes (para and non-disabled) from 72 teams are competing in Birmingham, across 21 sports.

The disparity is something the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) is acutely aware of, and they’re trying to address it through the GAPS program, which supports the development of emerging para athletes and coaches from the Commonwealth.

“Maybe one day we could have all of our Commonwealth countries having athletes with disabilities in their team,” CGF development director Richard de Groen said.

“And I think they make those teams so much richer, for having that diversity. The athletes with disability bring so much to the able-bodied athletes.”

Enock and Latu paving the way for Oceania para athletes

It’s the para powerlifting women’s heavyweight final at Birmingham’s NEC, and Vanuatu’s Elie Enock is preparing for her third and final lift.

She’s last in the competition after failing her first two attempts at 68kg.

The gold medallist, Nigeria’s Alice Oluwafemiayo lifted a world record 155kg.

Sensing Enock needs their support, the crowd roars and urges her on.

A woman wearing grey is handed crutches from a man wearing yellow
Chris Nunn congratulates Elie Enock after her final lift in the para powerlifting at Birmingham 2022.(Getty Images: Al Bello)

This is not for a medal.

It is a lift for all the smaller and developing nations who struggle to field para athletes and a lift to show that she belongs here, centre stage at the Commonwealth Games.

With all her might, Enock does it — a huge smile breaks out on her face, and she thanks the crowd.

“I’m so happy representing the people living with disability back in Vanuatu,” she said.

“I just want to show them that even though being a person with disability, you can still do what you [want], just look at your ability.”

Wheelchair table tennis player Akanasi Latu, 64, is one of only two para athletes from Fiji competing in Birmingham, at her first Games.

“It’s a big story to be telling the generations that I was here,” she said.

Latu said one of the biggest challenges for para athletes in Fiji is inadequate transport.

“We really find it very difficult, there are a lot of our friends that we wanted to come and join us. But the thing that we are facing is our [remote] location and the financial [struggles],” she said.

A woman wearing a light blue polo sits in a wheelchair and smiles
Fiji’s Akanasi Latu makes and sells handicrafts to support herself.(ABC News: Amanda Shalala)

Australia’s Chris Nunn is an experienced high-performance manager in the disability sport space.

He’s been working with the GAPS program and leads the Oceania Paralympic Committee’s (OPC) efforts to develop para sport across the region.

OPC’s aim is to have every nation represented at the Brisbane 2032 Paralympics, while improving the overall standard of elite disability sport in the region.

He said para athletes face many challenges.

“Bus services are almost impossible, and even if they have got them, to afford to be able to get on a bus is problematic,” he said.

“So they have to choose sometimes that they’re going to eat today or they’re going to catch a bus and go to training.

“We need to find ways of funding these guys to get consistent training. And then we just need the coaches with knowledge to be able to enhance their performance.”

He acknowledged it was not a good look for para sport when events do not have a full field of competitors.

“We have to have the same rules as what the able-bodied athletes in different sports get,” he said.

“So I have no problem with saying that if they don’t meet the criteria [for number of athletes], they’re not on the table. We want credibility, that’s the only way we can look people in the face to say we deserve to be here.”

Two men, one wearing an eye shield, during a running race
Uganda’s Fred Masisa competed in the men’s T11/12 100m at the Games.(Reuters: Phil Noble)

Nik Diaper is the head of para sport at Loughborough University in Leicestershire, one of the world’s leading universities for disability sport, and he is the former head of performance at the British Paralympic Association.

“How do we ensure that our athletes — whether they’re competing in a Commonwealth Games context, or in the Paralympic Games context — that this gulf that we’re seeing between the rich nations and the poor nations just doesn’t continue to widen and widen and in 15 or 20 years’ time, some of these poor nations are just not even represented at all?” he said.

“I think that would be a sad day for all of us and for disability at the global level.”

What should integration look like?

Diaper said organisers should think big when considering what it means to be fully inclusive of para athletes at the Commonwealth Games.

“Would it mean 50 per cent of the athlete cohort are para athletes and 50 per cent are not? Is that true integration?” he said.

He also said there was scope to run mixed relay events in triathlon, athletics or cycling.

But even with an integrated Games, there are concerns non-disabled athletes still tend to attract most of the attention.

“I think that’s probably one of the conundrums for integration is just how para doesn’t become second best, the little brother in the corner that nobody’s interested in,” Diaper said.

Danni Di Toro is a two-time co-captain of Australia’s Summer Paralympics team and is competing in her first Commonwealth Games in para table tennis.

Two Australian Paralympians sit side by side at a press conference, laughing as they hold microphones.
Danni Di Toro (left) was co-captain of the Australian Summer Paralympics team at Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020.(Getty Images: Stefan Postles)

Di Toro is on board with the 50/50 concept.

“When you see a Madi [de Rozario] get on a podium, and there’s only two of them, and you see Jess Gallagher get up there, that’s not good for anyone,” Di Toro said.

“And it’s not because the quality and the depth isn’t there. And I think that’s the unfortunate part of it.

“You’ve got to schedule it right. I appreciate that at a Paralympics there’s a lot of events and there’s a lot to get through. But I think if we’re going to do real diversity and do real equality, let’s do 50/50, we can do that.”

“Yes, it’s the friendly games, but I don’t think any of us enjoy seeing one-sided competition,” Diaper said.

“When teams or athletes from the less well-off nations are being well beaten, it’s not competitive, there’s no entertainment value in that.

“And I would argue, in the long term, it’s damaging for those nations, for those individuals and damaging for Para sport as a whole, because it cements maybe some of the inequality in place or this perception that Para sport just isn’t very competitive.”

The widening technology divide

Of all the challenges facing athletes from smaller or developing nations — including funding, access to resources and facilities, and high-performance support — technology and equipment is perhaps the biggest factor.

“We need to have events that the whole of the world can compete in, and the whole of the Commonwealth can compete in,” de Groen said.

Four female wheelchair racers during an event in a stadium
The wheelchair racing events have been dominated by Australia and England at the Games.(Reuters: Phil Noble)

“And so some of the more technical, highly specialised events — whether you’ve got prosthetics or expensive wheelchairs, expensive bikes — they’re just not going to be accessible to small island nations or developing countries.

“That’s one of the things that we’re focusing on and having a big enough field and a high quality enough for athletes to be able to get into it.”

Nunn said sports like athletics, para powerlifting and para table tennis are “no-brainers” and wants sports like para volleyball to also be considered.

“We’ve just gotta look at what’s on offer and make sure that it’s not laboured towards those athletes that have got access to bikes, wheelchairs,” he said.

“That’s not reality in the Pacific nations, and even if they provided them free of charge, they would be wrecked in no time on the roads they’ve got to train on.

“So we [need to] choose sports that are viable, and [that have] got good numbers. Not just Oceania, but this extends to the Caribbean extends to Africa as well. This is a global approach that we need to take.”

Breaking down the disability stigma

There are also deeper, cultural issues at play for many countries in the Commonwealth, which money will not solve.

“Often what we miss and what’s really important to recognise is the role of disability stigma, and the various forms of kind of structural and cultural exclusion, that are often more prevalent within some of these low to middle income countries in the Commonwealth,” social scientist and lecturer at the University of Loughborough Dr Emma Pullen said.

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