'We were athletes first': How the Sydney Paralympics changed perceptions of disability

18 October 2020

The memory of carrying the Australian flag into a packed stadium for the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games, 20 years ago this week, still makes Brendan Burkett’s heart beat a little faster.

The Games were among the nation’s most dominant sporting performances with the team topping the medal count for the first and only time, as well as setting a host of world records.

But two decades on, those who competed also remember an even greater achievement — seeing the perception of people with a disability change dramatically.

Paralympian Brendan Burkett holds the Australian flag at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Opening Ceremony.Paralympian Brendan Burkett holds the Australian flag at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Opening Ceremony.
The Sydney Games were among one of Australia’s most dominant sporting performances.(Supplied: Australian Paralympic Committee)

From Paralympics to parliament

Twenty years ago, Liesl Tesch was a young wheelchair basketballer competing in front of sold out stadiums for the first time.

“It was just amazing … there really are no words to describe it,” she said.

With a nation already riding a wave of success from the Olympics, Paralympians enjoyed a level of public interest they had never experienced.

Programs to encourage the attendance of school groups exposed a whole generation to what was possible.

“We as athletes had to educate the community as to what a Paralympian was,” she said.

The experience gave her a level of confidence she carried into state politics as NSW Labor’s Member for Gosford.

“Prior to Sydney, people with disabilities were not in any spotlight whatsoever. It was the first time we had a name like Louise Sauvage as part of the household conversation.”

Louise Sauvage in a wheelchair race in the 2000 Paralympic Games.Louise Sauvage in a wheelchair race in the 2000 Paralympic Games.
Louise Sauvage was one of Australia’s top performers at the Sydney 2000 Games.(Supplied: Australian Paralympic Committee)

It was the first time athletes like Kurt Fearnley, who would go on to become a world-renowned sporting identity, were exposed to the masses.

“It’s just opened doors that didn’t exist before we had the games … and I couldn’t possibly imagine how big that change would be,” Tesch said.

Creating elite culture

The public’s enthusiasm was matched by an organisational push to raise the bar in the support for para athletes.

It was an improvement noticed by Paul Bird, the Australian team’s chef de mission at the time.

“One of the striking things I remember leading into Sydney was funding for preparation,” he said.

“That was the first time really that the Government had provided substantial funding to prepare athletes.”

The way athletes were classified was also different from other games.

Previously, they were grouped according to their disability. Now their sport took precedence.

“We were going to move as a team from a disability focus to a sport focus,” Bird said.

Paralympian Kurt Fearnley holds a gold medal.Paralympian Kurt Fearnley holds a gold medal.
Renowned athlete Kurt Kearnley debuted as an Paralympian at the Sydney 2000 Games.(AAP: Dave Hunt)

It was a stark contrast to the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta where the level of accessibility and resourcing left a lot to be desired.

Bird remembered seeing athletes having to line up in the rain outside the meal hall due to a lack of accessibility.

Tesch said the second-rate treatment left competitors feeling like an afterthought.

“Atlanta was woeful,” she said.

“The venues were not very accessible, training venues were two hours away and they were locked when we arrived.”

Pushing the boundaries

As the Australian Paralympic team’s head swimming coach, Brendan Burkett has seen a steady improvement in standards for athletes with a disability.

But he believed the Sydney Games, his fourth, set the standard for modern competitions.

“It was a benchmark event for the world,” Burkett said.

“Physical accessibility in terms of ramps and signage was great, but the bigger one was the inclusiveness of the volunteers and officials and the crowd.

“We competed in front of sold out stadiums of people who understood and appreciated the sport.

Australian Paralympic swimmer Brendan Burkett sits by the pool.Australian Paralympic swimmer Brendan Burkett sits by the pool.
Burkett has continued to push the boundaries sport as the director of high performance at the University of Sunshine Coast.(Supplied: Brendan Burkett)

The experience contributed to Burkett’s drive to push the boundaries of his sport as a coach and innovator.

In the years after the Sydney games, he studied engineering and became the director of high performance sport at University of Sunshine Coast.

“Those Games, the positiveness and the enjoyment of being part of that rollercoaster, instilled a desire to give back to the sport,” he said.

“That has led to where I am now.”

To celebrate 20 years since the 2000 Games, former athletes from around the country have planned a virtual get together.

ABC News Disability Direct



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