This week, the Paralympic movement is celebrating 70 years since the inaugural competition, the Stoke Mandeville Games in 1948, which 12 years later would evolve into the Paralympic Games.
German doctor Ludwig Guttmann working at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Great Britain wanted to offer recreation as part of the rehabilitation for his patients at the spinal injuries centre. On 29 July 1948 the inaugural Stoke Mandeville Games were held. In his opening speech at the Games Guttmann said: “I dream of the day when there will be Olympic Games for people with disabilities”. His dream has come true and modern Paralympians are his legacy.
After a number of Paralympic competitions over the next 12 years, the inaugural Paralympic Games would be held in Rome in Italy in 1960. Track and field was represented at those Games with three competitors winning seven medals. NSW pair Daphne Hilton and Gary Hooper won medals in the precision javelin, club throw, shot and javelin. Also, in the athletics competition was Western Australian Frank Ponta, who was a very versatile athlete also competed in basketball, fencing and swimming at the Games.
Ponta was pioneer of Paralympic sport in WA and would go onto coach and mentor future greats like Louise Sauvage and swimmer Priya Cooper.
Sauvage remembers Ponta fondly.
“Frank Ponta is a legend in his own right, let alone what he has done for this country. Frank has enriched the lives of so many involved in Wheelchair Sports and I am one of them.”
Ponta had a significant impact on Sauvage’s life from a very young age.
“I first met Frank at the age of eight. He introduced me to a world of sport that I did not know existed. He was my first coach and taught me so much, not only about all the different disciples and aspects involved in sport, but he helped mould me into an accomplished international athlete whose values incorporated fairness and sportsmanship.”
He was a pioneer for the sport which was emerging in the late 50s.
“Frank was himself a trailblazer for Wheelchair Sports in this country, not only establishing Wheelchair Sports associations in many different states but he competed at the first ever Paralympic Games in Rome 1960. What better role model could I have had to help me in my career?”
In his own sporting career Ponta would go onto compete in athletics at four Paralympic Games - 1960, 1968, 1972 and 1976.
At the second Paralympic Games, in Tokyo in 1964, the athletics team increased to seven with Gary Hooper (NSW) and Elaine Schreiber (VIC) each winning gold – our inaugural Paralympic Games champions. Schreiber competed in four event, but would win gold in the club throw, while Hooper won the 60m sprint. The athletics team size had jumped to 22 by 1968 in Tell Aviv.
During the 15 editions of the Paralympic Games over 200 athletes have had the honour of wearing the green and gold. For 58 years the Games have been a platform for our athletes to showcase their athletics talents, as they inspire others to participate in sport. Along the way many have become household names and legends of Australian sport – Louise Sauvage, Kurt Fearnley, Tim Sullivan, Hamish MacDonald, Angie Ballard, Christie Dawes, Darren Thrupp, Heath Francis, Neil Fuller, Russell Short, Lisa McIntosh, Katrina Webb, Jodi Willis-Roberts, Amy Winters, Evan O'Hanlon, Chad Perris, Scott Reardon, Richard Colman and Isis Holt.
The current crop of emerging stars, like, Madi de Rozario, Jaryd Clifford, James Turner, Michael Roeger and Brayden Davidson, guarantee the sport is in good hands for future success.
David Tarbotton for Athletics Australia