Australian volunteers have worked to bring Pacific athletes with disabilities to the Paralympics qualifying rounds in Brisbane this week, in an effort to promote an all-inclusive para-sport society.
The Queensland Athletics Championship is the last chance for athletes from Pacific countries — including Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Vanuatu and Kiribati — to qualify for the 2020 Summer Paralympic Games in Tokyo this August.
Paul Bird is president of the Oceania Paralympic Committee, an international organisation that works to foster collaboration and equal opportunity between athletes with disabilities throughout the Pacific. Bird, who, like all board members volunteers his time, said a “small grant from OPC’s international parent committee” helped bring athletes from seven Pacific nations to Australia.
While in Australia, the athletes will work with local trainers and advisors.
"This is the only opportunity we have for the athletes from the Oceania countries to obtain classification before Tokyo,” Bird told SBS. “But the bigger picture for us is inclusion; what we’re on about creating through para-sport is inclusive communities.”
Throughout the Pacific, 1.7 million people live with a disability.
According to the inter-governmental organisation Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), people with disabilities in the Pacific have considerably less economic participation, higher rates of poverty and poorer outcomes across health and education.
“People with disabilities in Pacific island countries are among the poorest and most marginalized members of their communities,” PIF writes on its website. “Disability limits access to education and employment and other basic social services and leads to economic and social exclusion, while disabled people and their families face prejudice, discrimination and rejection.”
Pacific athletes first attended the Paralympics in 1964.
In 2012, eight athletes, the highest number of Pacific Islanders to take part in the Paralympics, attended the games in London.
While in London, Fijian Iliesa Delana — who lost his left leg in a bus accident as a toddler — won the region's first ever Paralympic or Olympic gold medal in the men’s high jump.
While the Australian government has invested in sport for development programs for over a decade, Bird hopes that the OPC’s continuing success stories will see Australia commit specific foreign aid funding to the committee.
“Funding is always an issue, even buying shoes to compete in, trying to get equipment for athletes, trying to get funding for para-athletes to get classified, it’s an enormous obstacle. It’s the barrier to them participating in sport,” Bird told SBS. “We have great stories, we have great outcomes, and I think we could translate that into some very effective future development opportunities with some targeted funding.”