The 2020 Summer Paralympics are underway in Tokyo, with 179 Australian athletes competing across 18 events over the next 12 days. We thought we would take the time to delve into the National Library’s collection and share the human stories that make the medals possible. 

From oral history recordings to vast collections of images, we have a rich collection of material that illuminates the Australian Paralympic movement, bringing individual stories to life. 

Some of these stories are available after the Australian Paralympic History project worked with Australia’s Paralympians to digitise and describe public and their personal archives, making them available to all.

The first Paralympians

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Paralympic Games in September 2010, the National Library and the Australian Paralympic Committee undertook a project to record the oral histories of the athletes who attended the first Games in Rome in 1960 – 13 athletes and 9 officials, who raised their own funds to compete.

Since then, 66 interviews have been recorded for the Australian Centre for Paralympic Studies Oral History Project, expanding the focus from the first Paralympians through to athletes in Sydney and beyond. 

Among the earliest oral histories from the project is an interview with Kevin Coombs, a Wotjobaluk man who travelled to Rome as a 19-year old from Victoria. 

At the centre of an image a man seated in a wheelchair, wearing dark blue trousers and a green t-shirt, is wheeling himself along an athletics track. An Olympic torch is attached to his chair on the right. It is nighttime, and while a spotlight shines on the man, a crowd behind him in stadium seating is mostly in the dark, with a few lights visible, as if from candles.
Kevin Coombs in the Last Leg of the Torch Relay at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games, 2000, Australian Paralympic Committee/Australian Sports Commission

Coombs was hunting rabbits when he was accidentally shot in the back, leaving him paraplegic. In his oral history he speaks about Ludwig Guttmann and the founding of the Paralympics, and recalls his first wheelchair, which was given to him by a local Ford dealer who had sold raffle tickets to raise the money – 'all chrome… it looked beautiful,' says Coombs. He played sport as part of his rehabilitation and took to wheelchair basketball, competing in the national championships in 1960 before being selected for the Paralympics. Asked how he was selected for the team, he laughs and gives a self-deprecating answer: 'I guess because we were available'.

There are also interviews with people who have played key roles in the development of the Paralympic movement in Australia, including Dr. John Yeo, who led the team at the 1968 Games, and Anne Green, an influential coach and administrator in Paralympic swimming.

Sydney 2000

In 2000, the Paralympics came to Australia for the first time. The National Library sent staff photographers Jim Nomarhas and Loui Seselja along to document a range of events, including shooting, swimming, track and field, wheelchair basketball and equestrian.

Eight men round the bend in a track running event. The stadium seating behind them is half full of spectators.
Loui Seselja, Track Event ... Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games, 22 October 2000,

They also captured the opening and closing ceremonies, and life in the Paralympic village. The athlete’s dining hall featured a range of cosmopolitan options, as evidenced below.

Three people in tracksuits stand in front of a McDonalds counter that seems to be in a bigger room with other food outlet options.
James Nomarhas, McDonald's in the Dining Hall in the Paralympic Village, Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games, 16 October 2000,

Jim found himself on the other side of the camera in Sydney as well, competing as a shooter at his second Paralympic Games. Following on from a silver medal win in Atlanta, Jim took part in the Air Pistol Men, Free Pistol and Sports Pistol Mixed events in 2000. Here he signs autographs during an athlete’s parade in Canberra.

A man in a wheelchair is at the centre of the image, looking towards the bottom of the frame where the tops of heads are visible. One of he people at the bottom of the frame is holding out paper to the man in the wheelchair; others are holding small flags. In the background, another person in a wheelchair has their back to the camera, while a woman with short dark hair and glasses squats down beside them.
Loui Seselka, Jim Normahas, Paralympic Shooter, Signs Autographs for the Crowd, Garema Place, Canberra, 2 November 2000,

Australian Paralympic Committee on Trove

In Trove you can find over 3,000 images gathered by the Australian Paralympic History project that document the triumphs and travails of every Australian team. There are also biographies for past and present Australian Paralympians like Louise Sauvage and multi-medallist and current commentator Kurt Fearnley

A seated woman faces out of the photograph with her arms in the air has a bunch of flowers in her right hand and a gold medal on a blue ribbon around her neck. Behind her, some grass is visible and stadium seating can be seen behind that. Her jumper has white stars on a navy background and says 'Australia' on it in red capital letters
John Sherwell, Louise Sauvage with One of Her Four Gold Medals at the Atlanta 1996 Paralympic Games, Australian Paralympic Committee/Sport the Library