People with Disability at the Olympics—Not Only Oscar!
Date released: December 2012: Updated: August 2017
Partners: David Legg, Alison Burchell, Patrick Jarvis and Tony Sainsbury
During the 2012 Paralympic Games in London you would have heard a lot about Oscar Pistorius. He was often said to be the first athlete with a disability to compete in the Olympics. He was probably the most high profile. But he certainly was far from the first. Find out about 10 other great athletes with disability that competed in the Olympics—right back to 1904!
The London 2012 Paralympic Games has sadly come to an end. No doubt you’d have heard a lot about Oscar Pistorius. We lost count of the number of times we heard that Oscar was the first Paralympic athlete to compete at the Olympic Games. He wasn’t even the only person with a disability in London. There was Dong Hyun, the South Korean archer who has 10% vision in one eye and 20% in his other. He set the first world record of the London Games. There was also Natalie Partyka from Poland appearing in her second Olympics in table tennis. She was born without a right hand and forearm. Certainly, Oscar’s probably the most high profile of athletes with a disability to compete in the Olympics. But definitely not the first—not by a long shot. So, with a bit of research we’ve put this nice little episode together for you profiling 10 people with disability that have competed at the Olympic Games. We’re sure there are probably more but this isn’t a bad list. It goes as far back as George Eyser at the 1904 Games. Of course, they are all complete legends! Enjoy.
George Eyser (Gymnastics)
George was a German-American gymnast who competed in the 1904 Summer Olympics, earning six medals in one day, including three gold and two silver medals. Eyser competed with a wooden prosthesis for a left leg, having lost his real leg after being run over by a train. He won gold in the vault, an event which then included a jump over a long horse without aid of a springboard. source: Wikipedia
Olivér Halassy (Water Polo)
Oliver was a Hungarian water polo player and freestyle swimmer who competed in the 1928 Summer Olympics, in the 1932 Summer Olympics, and in the 1936 Summer Olympics. He was the first amputee swimmer to compete in the Olympics. He was missing his left leg from a childhood accident (missing a jump on a street car at age 8). He was killed by a Soviet soldier after a robbery near his home in Budapest in 1946. source: Wikipedia
Lis Hartel (Equestrian)
Lis was a Danish equestrian athlete. Hartel became the first woman in the equestrian sports to win an Olympic medal when she won silver medals at the 1952 and 1956 Summer Olympics in dressage. She was paralysed below the knees as a result of polio and required assistance on and off her horse. She has had a large impact on horsemanship in Denmark. She also was given a lot of credit for starting the movement for therapeutic riding schools. There’s a school in Holland named after her. source: Simply Marvelous Horse World
Rejto ildiko (Fencing)
She began fencing at age 15. She was deaf. Her coaches communicated with her by writing instructions on paper, which they gave to her between training sessions. She eventually became one of the best female fencers in the world, hitting her peak in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1958, she was Hungarian foil champion. In 1963 she was World foil champion. She took part in every Olympiad from 1960 to 1976. She won 7 medals: 2 gold, 3 silver, and 2 bronze. She is considered one of the greatest female fencers in Olympic history. source: Wikipedia
Jeff James Float (Swimming)
Jeff is an American former competition swimmer, world record holder, world champion and Olympic gold medalist. He qualified for the 1980 Moscow-bound Olympic Swimming Team, which was boycotted by the U.S., and four years later competed at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. There he was named team captain by his peers, earned a gold medal in 4x200-meter freestyle relay and finished fourth in the 200-meter freestyle event. At 13 months of age, Float lost most of his hearing and nearly his life to viral meningitis. As the result, he is 90% deaf in his right ear and 65% in his left. Jeff became the first legally deaf athlete from the United States to win an Olympic gold medal. Great name for a swimmer too! source: Wikipedia and Swim Across America
Neroli Fairhall (Archery)
Born in Christchurch, Fairhall took up archery following a motorbike accident which paralysed her from the waist down, ending her previous athletic career. She was able to compete in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, shooting for New Zealand and finishing in 35th place. Fairhall was awarded an MBE for services to the sport. She continued to coach at her Christchurch archery club after retiring from shooting. She died on 11 June 2006, aged 61, due to illness arising from her disability. source: Wikipedia
Paola Fantato (Archery)
At age 8 she contracted poliomyelitis, and has been wheelchair user ever since. She competed in archery at five consecutive Summer Paralympic Games from 1988 to 2004 and won a total of five gold medals, one silver, and two bronzes for Italy. She participated in both the 1996 Summer Olympics and Paralympics, taking a bronze medal in women’s individual and a gold in women’s team at the Paralympic Games. She won gold medals in both the individual and team events for archery at the 2000 Summer Paralympics, and took gold and silver at the 2004 Paralympics. source: Wikipedia
Terence Parkin (Swimming)
Parkin competed in his first Olympic games in 2000 at the age of 20. He used sign language to communicate with his coach. About his trip to the Olympics, Parkin said “I am going to the Olympics to represent South Africa, but it’s so vitally important for me to go, to show that the deaf can do anything. They can’t hear, they can see everything. I would like to show the world that there’s opportunities for the deaf.” source: Wikipedia and Getty images
Marla Runyan (Athletics)
Marla is an American track and field athlete, road runner and marathon runner who is legally blind. She is a three-time national champion in the women’s 5000 metres. Runyan won four gold medals at the 1992 Summer Paralympics in the long jump and the 100, 200, and 400 meter races. She also competed in cycling at those games. She attempted to qualify for the Olympics at the 1996 US Olympic Trials, finishing 10th in the Heptathlon. She went on to place eighth in the 1,500-meter in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. source: Wikipedia and National Womes History Museum
Natalie du Toit (Swimming)
In 2003, competing against able-bodied swimmers, Du Toit won gold in the 800 metres freestyle at the All-Africa Games as well as silver in the 800 metres freestyle and bronze in the 400 metres freestyle at the Afro-Asian Games. She narrowly missed qualifying for the Olympics in Athens in 2004. On 3 May 2008, Du Toit qualified for the 2008 Beijing Olympics after finishing fourth in the 10 km open water race at the Open Water World Championships in Seville, Spain. Her time was only 5.1 seconds off the winner in a race that made its first Olympic appearance in Beijing. At the Beijing Olympics women’s 10 km race, she finished in 16th place. She also took part in the 2008 Summer Paralympics, winning five gold medals. On 27 August 2012, just three days before the start of the 2012 Summer Paralympics, she announced her intention to retire at the end of the event. Of course, she kicked butt in London too! source: Wikipedia and Getty images As an extra bonus here—subsequent to first publishing this episode we were contacted by David Legg from Canada. David has featured in other Inclusion Club episodes. David co-authored a paper in 2008 called The Athlete Ability Debate: Have We Reached The Tipping Point. David and his colleagues—Alison Burchell, Patrick Jarvis and Tony Sainsbury—put this excellent paper together providing an overview of athletes with a disability that have competed in the Olympic Games. It unearths a few more athletes not profiled here and gives a very good historical context to this, too. David has kindly given us permission to offer this paper for download here and we highly recommend you do below—it’s a great read. Oh, and apologies to our New Zealand neighbours—how could we have left off our list Murray Halberg!!
So there you have it. Oscar was certainly not the first athlete with a disability to compete at the Olympic Games nor will he be the last. Hope you enjoyed this episode.
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About the author: Peter Downs
Founding Director - The Inclusion Club
Peter is Founding Director of The Inclusion Club and Manager of Play by the Rules – a national initiative to promote safe, fair and inclusive sport. Peter has worked for over 25 years in the field of inclusive sport, disability sport and physical activity including 17 years managing the Australian Sports Commission’s Disability Sport Unit. In 2013 Peter was fortunate enough to receive a Churchill Fellowship to study models of best practice in inclusive sport and physical activity.