It was the early 90s, and a hot summer's afternoon in Carcoar, Australia, my hometown; population of about 300 and most of that number my own cousins, aunts, and uncles. We were playing cricket, or maybe footy, in the paddock, I can't remember. There were thistles in my knees as I crawled around taking catches or making tackles — a typical battle which usually ended when the sun went down and we were called in by mum for dinner.
But this summer's afternoon was different, and it would set me on a path I could never have dreamed of. It was a life changing moment. This time my dad, a tall, strong man, and decent bush rugby league player by all accounts, came bounding out of the house, threw me over his shoulder, rushed me inside and plonked me down in front of the television.
Mid protest, I looked away from dad towards the TV and saw it: a dozen or more gladiators. They were men in wheelchairs, but not like the wheelchair I got about in when I found a patch of concrete, more like a Roman chariot. They were not drawn by horses, but powered by the arms of men, bigger, and stronger than I'd seen before. The only people I'd seen in a wheelchair were in hospitals, usually pushed around by a nurse or carer. This was the Oz Day 10km, an annual race around Sydney's historic Rocks district, where the best from around the world gathered to race wheelchairs. From that moment, my destiny was set.
Up until then I had dreamed of playing on the wing for Australia, swimming in the Olympics, or playing Ashes cricket against England. I knew I was a bit different to most kids but nobody had told me I couldn’t reach the levels I had set myself. This moment, though, defined a goal with a clear purpose. I wanted to be a gladiator in a wheelchair, the world’s fastest.
I tell this story often as it’s a frank reminder that sport changes lives and access to sport can be a key differentiator. If you see it, read about, experience it, you are more likely to believe it’s possible. For me, that moment was seeing disability sport on television. It might have been just a snippet in a news bulletin, but it was a start. I didn’t know about the Paralympics or even wheelchair sport until that moment. Seeing that clip woke something in me that changed the path of my life and helped me change the path of others.
I did OK in the end, won a few World Championships, some Paralympic medals, and traveled the world racing in the biggest, most prestigious marathons. But I know that sport has enabled me to have a far greater impact than just on my own life and a box of medals stuffed in a cupboard somewhere. The exposure I've received has helped change other people’s lives too.
Having inclusive, accessible, and equal sporting competitions and coverage in the media can change lives, and sport can be a great enabler of social change. Seeing Ellyse Perry, the world’s leading women’s cricket player, hitting a six for Australia and reading about it in a feature story online, or on the back page of the paper, makes a difference. It makes a difference for young girls dreaming about doing the same and helps change impressions in a society who grew up without women’s sport in their lives.
Heading to a major sporting event with an integrated disability and able-bodied sporting program, like the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games, cheering on Madison de Rozario in the women’s wheelchair race just before Yohan Blake runs the 100 meters can change lives. Maybe there was a little boy or girl, in a wheelchair in the crowd or watching at home who has seen and experienced what is possible and what it is like to have 50,000 people cheer you on. Or it is the able-bodied sports fan, not seeing difference or disability when watching, just seeing a race.
Sport also enables organisations to raise millions of dollars and increase the profile for important causes, like former rugby league player Mark Hughes’ foundation for brain cancer. Beanie round at the footy using sport’s standing in society to make a difference. Or the many mass-participation running events, like the Sydney Marathon, City to Surf, or any world marathon, that introduce healthy habits and lifestyles to thousands, often raising millions of dollars for worthwhile causes as a bonus.
Sport is a great enabler. It changes lives on and off the field of competition. Participants personally benefit with health improvements — becoming stronger, faster, and healthier — and enjoy that competitive surge of adrenaline and chemical explosion in our brains that comes with a win or by just being out there. The trophy or medal, that roar from the crowd, are the icing on the cake and have been some of the greatest moments of my life.
But sport is a social construct, not a purely individual pursuit. It's the people around me, my coach, fellow competitors, and other runners, team mates, spectators, officials, volunteers, media, administrators, and the average Joe who checks in every now and then to says they’re proud of what you've achieved. These are the people who use sport to make a real difference in many people’s lives. It multiplies far beyond what any individual can achieve.
Sport isn’t just about winning or losing, scoring or conceding, being the fittest in the world or living a healthy lifestyle. Sport in its best form is an agent of positive change for society as a whole.
Kurt Fearnley AO is a five-time Australian Paralympian, multiple world champion and winner of more than 30 wheelchair marathons around the world. He retired from national representation after winning marathon gold at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.
Kurt is a member of the board of Sport Australia and Paralympics Australia, and is Australia's 2019 International Day of People with Disability Ambassador.
In 2009 he crawled the 96km Kokoda Track, raising money and awareness for men's mental health, and was a member of the winning crew in the 2011 Sydney to Hobart yacht race.