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Game-changers and sporting special moments

by Paul Gibson

The New Zealand Paralympics swimming team is returning home with a haul of medals.  Sophie Pascoe and Mary Fischer have a bucket each and this is of course a fantastic achievement.  These two and other athletes that compete with a disability are game-changers. They break down stereotypes of what living with a disability means and they also make us proud as a nation.

But I don't want to perpetuate the myth that because someone is a disabled person, or disabled sports person, for that alone they are to be idolised or deemed worthy of admiration.  Obviously, Oscar Pistorious was phenomenal on the track but a violent villain off.   

In this blog post I want to note moments in time and people that have been or are "game-changers". Certain moments and people have changed the world somehow just by being themselves but also by being challenging and brave. And actually our own behaviour and attitudes to sports have the power to change hearts and minds on attitudes to diversity.   

A few game-changers that come to mind are dyslexic Muslim, anti-war boxing champion Muhammad Ali; former decathlete, transgender Caitlyn Jenner; and most notably NZ’s rugby world cup champion, and now mental illness champion for the “Like Minds" programme, former All Black John Kirwan.  

By acknowledging his experience of mental illness,John Kirwan,  changed the rules on what it is to be a Kiwi bloke. We don’t always have to harden up – we can seek support.  He has helped to reduce stigma and discrimination, and possibly saved lives.  HE changed the game.

But JK experienced a lack of tolerance for his depression.  Towards the end of his provincial career, and before he "came out", he would come onto the field minutes after his teammates and seconds before the kick-off whistle, presumably because of mental illness-related anxiety.  Because of this, the crowd would unsportingly harass and "boo" him.  

Christchurch, Fijian rugby player, Sake Aka has suffered racist abuse from spectators. My colleague, the Race Relations Commissioner and world champion squash player Dame Susan Devoy, called the racist abusers on their behaviour and urged the spectators at that game and on sidelines around the country to not be bystanders – to stand up against these abusers.

Even blind people like me can be armchair sports critics rather than supporters, and like others I have my view on special moments where matches are won and lost.  But by supporting sports people of all abilities and races we too can be game changers. The "home ground advantage" due to the overwhelming crowd support illustrates this effect.

I remember during the 2011 Rugby World Cup final, the critical moment was when the fifth pick for first five, Stephen Donald (whose previous performance for the AB’s was not a winning one) was about to run onto the field to replace an injured player.  Half a dozen spectators in different parts of the ground started a welcoming cheer that the whole crowd followed and amplified.   The unlikely hero stepped up and delivered.  But I think that any less of a welcome could have undermined the new player’s and the whole team’s confidence and cost NZ the world cup. 

I have blogged previously about game changer Robert Martin, the Kiwi with a learning/intellectual disability who went to the United Nations, exploded a few myths himself, and changed the world. Prior to this, his first adventure onto the world stage was as captain of the NZ Special Olympics soccer team.   He wears his badge so proudly.

 I have heard athletes talk about the fun they have, the quality of life participation in sport gives them, and how, having performed to the applause of a packed stadium, they come away from the games with a sense of dreams fulfilled.  It is the support that so often makes the difference.

My call to action is to at least be brave in our attempt at including all people without prejudice, in our schools, workplaces, and communities, giving everyone the chance to win, and be a game changer. 

Paul Gibson, Disability Rights Commissioner

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