Olympians with a disability – Part One

For a few days this week it appeared that legally blind cross-country skier Brian McKeever was to win a place of the Canadian team at Sochi. Unfortunately for him an eight place finish in the last Canadian trial race means his chances of becoming an Olympian this time round are now extremely slim. McKeever did make the team for the Vancouver Games but was left on the side lines by the team coaches and did not take part in the Olympic races. So it looks like we may have to wait a little longer for an athlete with a disability to take a full part in the Winter Games. The Summer Games is an entirely different matter and the list of competitors who have triumphed over disability is a lot longer than you might think. Read on…

1904 St. Louis
George Eyser (USA) – Gymnastics
3 gold medals, 2 silver, 1 bronze
Born in Germany, George Eyser arrived in the US as a child. It is believed that he lost most of his left leg in an accident either with a train or a trolley car – there are conflicting reports. To compensate for this loss he developed his upper body strength and became a gymnast. Competing at the 1904 Olympics he won 6 medals in a single day and won gold in the vault, parallel bars and the now obsolete rope climb.

1912
Bobby Bridge (GBR) – Athletics
The first person with a disability to compete in Olympic track and field, Bobby Bridge qualified for the Stockholm Games despite the handicap of his left arm being amputated at the elbow. A competitor in the 10,000 m race walk, he had the misfortune to be disqualified for running. In one race at Stamford Bridge in 1914 he broke the world record for every distance from 11 miles to 16 miles. He was a qualified dentist.

1960
Brian Pickworth (NZL) – Fencing
Brian Pickworth was a promising rugby player until he lost his left arm above the elbow in a shooting accident when he was 21 years old. He then switched to fencing and represented New Zealand not only in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome but also in the Empire (Commonwealth) Games in 1958 in Cardiff and in 1962 in Perth fencing all three weapons.

1984
Neroli Fairhall (NZL) – Archery
Originally a track & field athlete, Neroli Fairhall became paralysed from the waist down following a motorcycle accident. She continued her athletics career, competing in the 1972 Paralympic Games in various events in track and field. She then switched to archery, winning the gold in the 1980 Paralympics. She started competing with able-bodied athletes, from her wheelchair. When archery made its only appearance at the Commonwealth Games in 1982, she won the gold medal. Two years later, she became the first paraplegic to compete at the Olympics. Fairhall did not return to the Olympics, but competed twice more in the Paralympic Games, in 1988 and 2000. She retired after the latter event, switching to coaching. She passed away at the age of 61, of an illness related to her disability.

1928-1936
Olivér Halassy (HUN) – Water Polo
2 gold, 1 silver
Olivér Halassy was eight years old when he lost his left leg from the knee down following an accident as he attempted to jump on board a tram. 25 times a Hungarian national champion in swimming and European champion over 1500 m freestyle in 1931, Halassy was even better known as a water polo player. He was a vital part of the Hungarian team that dominated the sport in the 20s and 30s and won Olympic titles in 1932 and 1936 as well as silver in 1928 and three Olympic titles. Halassy was being driven home one night in 1946 when his taxi was stopped by a Soviet military patrol. An argument broke out between his driver and the soldiers and both driver and passenger were shot dead. He was just 37 at the time of his death.

2000-2004
Marla Runyan (USA) – Athletics
Being legally blind (due to Stargardt’s disease), runner Marla Runyan initially focussed on competing in events for visually impaired athletes. She was highly successful, winning three sprint events and the long jump at the 1992 Paralympics, while also competing in cycling. She added a fifth title at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics, winning the pentathlon and a silver in the shot put. But Runyan also aspired to compete in the Olympics, and had tried to qualify for the heptathlon at the US Olympic Trials, placing 10th. Her good 800 m in that competition convinced her to switch to middle distance running. This switch proved a good choice, and in 1999 Runyan won the 1500 m at the Pan American Games, and reached the World Championship final in the same event. She repeated that performance in Sydney, placing 8th in the Olympic final. She then turned her attention to long distance running, eventually competing in the 2004 Olympic 5 km, and placing 4th in the 2002 New York Marathon.

Part two of this article will follow soon.

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