The thoughts of Bob McCullough, past ISMWSF President


In response for the call of papers for the IWAS Conference on Disability Sport: A vehicle for social change

IWAS Conference on Disability  Sport ;  A VEHICLE FOR SOCIAL CHANGE

 Bob McCULLOUGH  OAM Past President of ISMWSF



Some years have passed since I was President of ISMWSF and I presented a proposal to amalgamate the International Organisation for Amputee Sports and the International Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Sports Federation. It presented a difficult and confronting task and there were many voices against the proposal but I took the matter seriously and spoke to many groups and individuals to further explain the benefits of such a move. Not many people are aware of the long history of trying to bring the disability organisations together.   Most of the many plans and attempts are contained in the book, Stoke Mandeville- ‘’Road to the Paralympics’’ by Joan Scruton MBE. It is worth reading  

Credit must go to the people who successfully “made it happen”and I would hope that the to and fro tactics of the past will no longer be tolerated. Mind you we should not rest on our laurels but rather we should address and identify what has to be done to bring about social change for people with a disability to the point of equal recognition no matter where we go!

 I see this as important in all areas of life from education through to further studies and employment in order to follow a career. The co-ordination of these aspects can be aided by the International and National Disability organisations through sound liaison with all levels of government and sports marketing. A good example of the marketing potential occurred  in the lead up to the Atlanta Paralympic Games in 1996. I wrote a letter to the NSW Motor Accident Authority seeking sponsorship. Not only did I succeed in obtaining $100,000(A) but the Authority also created employment for 10 athletes who could address School Students and workplaces, on disabilities which have and can occur in motor accidents. This proved so successful that the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Organising Committee obtained the same type of sponsorship for Sydney 2000 Athletes with a much greater financial commitment.

Raising operational funds to meet the athlete’s needs for training camps and overseas competition is most important and sound marketing is essential. The appointment of a proven marketing company is the right direction as the company will have many clients who could be attracted to disability sponsorship. In Australia the recognition and respect for people with a disability has increased significantly but there is still some way to go, particularly in the area of severe disabilities. This is understandable but solutions can be found. I well remember when as President of Australian Wheelchair Athletes Ltd and being elected to the position of President of the Australian Paralympic Federation. I suddenly realised that my contact with disabilities was limited mostly to Spinal Injuries and Amputees. If I was to be successful in the Paralympic organisation there was a need to experience other disabilities! My first experience was at the QEII Sports Stadium in Brisbane, Queensland where the National Championships for Boccia was being conducted. There were about 40 competitors, mostly in wheelchairs, some could speak and others could not or had great difficulty. This was my first contact with Cerebral Palsy .I spoke to a young girl of about 13 Years and I introduced myself, as Bob, and she immediately opened her laptop and printed out her pleasure in meeting me. We went on from there and had a great conversation. Her ambition was to be a lawyer! I moved along to others, probably about ten people before the competition started. I felt totally at ease but I quickly learnt not to shake hands as once the athlete got a grip of your hand it took some time to stop squeezing and then some time to release your hand. The event probably broke the ice as I had quite a few offers after that wanting to shake my hand. I certainly felt at ease with the athletes and I also gained a good understanding of their sport.

I then went to the athletics track to observe the Blind Athletes in Field & Track events. There were no real surprises and I enjoyed the Track short distance races and those of a longer distance that required a Guide Runner. I observed one fall of both athlete and Guide Runner and the athlete was a young man called Gerard Gosens. I will tell you more about him later. I was also privileged to observe and learn about swimming competition for all disabilities.

In taking up my position as President of the APF it became more apparent than ever that the organisation was lacking adequate funding to meet its role in the co-ordination and funding of elite sportspeople and administrative staff. The latter consisted of a Secretary General and an office assistant. The organization had no Government funding and none had been applied for because the State organisations considered government funding their territory!

The demands on the APC were high with Winter Paralympic Games coming up in 1998 and this was 1995 with the winding up of finances related to Barcelona and the likelihood of  Sydney being the successful bidder for the 2000 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

At this time the APC was not on good terms with the Australian Olympic Committee nor the Australian Sports Commission. The fact that the Confederation of Sports, whose membership consisted of all national sporting organisations, did not recognise sport for the disabled as elite sport but rather as a recreation activity. Accordingly there was little co-operation between the respective organisations.

I found myself in a situation where people were looking to me to sort out this mess and put it on a sound footing in order to support the athletes and enhance the true meaning of sport for people with a disability. Sounds easy until you analyse the politics within the organisation and see why the organisation was in disarray. Sure it had gone from crisis to crisis for every Paralympic Games but the athletes would not be recognised as elite sportspeople. We needed to lift our game and clearly show outward & visible signs of a sound organisation providing services to the athletes and funding those events of international standard e.g. World Championships, Paralympic Games. In addition to this it would be essential to establish sound relationships with the Australian State organisations and establish their role and responsibilities.

So, to achieve the desired goals we started by

  •  Establishing State Councils
  • Advertising for a Secretary General to replace present person who wished to retire.
  • Strengthening the Board of Management to include business people with specific expertise.
  • Meeting with Australian Olympic Committee
  • Meeting with Australian Sports Commission
  • Meeting with Australian Sports Federation
  • Appointing a Marketing Company
  • Establishing State Paralympic Committees

The above actions moved along at a fast rate with a significant amount of co-operation from the Disability organisations through to the athletes and coaches. It certainly was the start of a new image for Australian Paralympics!

It is not my intention to cover the above in any detail, other than to say that the new image which I envisaged came together very well and the politics ceased which resulted in excellent progress.

One aspect worth mentioning however was the occasion that I visited the State Parliament Building in Sydney at the invitation of the Hon John Fahey, Premier of NSW, and I met him and he asked me what problems I had and I gave him a brief outline. We had discussions and he concluded by advising me that he had a Function that he would like me to attend. The Premier emphasised that he would ensure that I met the right people!

On arrival at the function I was greeted and a waiter offered me a drink which I accepted. I was a little unsure of what this function would achieve, but then the Premier greeted me and within a few seconds we were joined by a number of other people including the President of the Australian Olympic Committee, Mr John Coates, and Mr Wilf Barker the Managing Director of Sports Marketing Australia. The Premier introduced me and said I want you gentlemen to assist Bob in gaining support for the Australia Paralympic Federation as it is essential if we are to succeed in our Olympic & Paralympic Bid for the year 2000.

The responses were fast and very positive with John Coates offering me assistance in obtaining Government funding and Wilf Barker offering me the opportunity to put a marketing plan in place.

Both of these avenues worked and within a few months the organisation had a flow of funding from Marketing and a Gold Medal Plan on its way to Australian Sports Commission for a significant amount to support the preparation of Athletes for Atlanta in 1996 and associated management and services…

Some weeks later I had a call from a young man who announced “my name is Gerard Gossens and I want to come and work for you” but I advised him I didn’t have the funds to employ him. His reply was to the effect that he was not concerned about that as he could bring in adequate funding. Gerard was most impressive with an outstanding background in fund raising. I agreed to meet him for lunch the next time I was in Brisbane. Gerard agreed and I obtained the necessary contact details. A few moments after Gerard’s call I received a call from Queensland Sporting Wheelies who asked whether Gerard Gosens had contacted me. I said yes! The person apologised for giving him my home phone number but said he was very persistent. Then she inquired if he had announced that he was totally blind but qualified this by saying he was a great worker and worked for Guide Dogs for the Blind.

A short time later I made a visit to Brisbane and called Gerard to arrange time and venue and along I went to the hotel. Gerard had arrived before me and was sitting at the dining table with his Guide Dog below the table and brief case by his side. He was very well dressed and had excellent presentation. Over the next two hours I was left in no doubt that Gerard could easily head up the Queensland Paralympic Committee and raise funding from many sources. Gerard then took the initiative and asked if I wanted an application and his resume. He then opened his brief case , out came the lap top and away he went. I t was short and complete and I listened to the proof read. All he wanted was $30,000 per annum and a fax machine. I advised that I would consult with my Board and let him know but I wanted to know about office accommodation etc. as the APC had no office in Brisbane. His answer was “ its easy don’t give it any further thought”!

I explained the situation to the Board and sought their permission to give Gerard a contract for 12 months and if he hadn’t produced in that time in terms of raising funds then the arrangement would not be extended. The Board agreed. Gosens was over the moon and within a week he had organised and was established in a fully furnished office in the business area of Brisbane. The office was complete with telephone and some secretarial support at no cost. From there Gerard was most productive and he far exceeded the $30,000 within a month and he had established an Advisory Board of people of influence in business and the community.

Sometimes I feel it’s the luck of the Irish when positive things happen and on this occasion on a Saturday Morning as I was reading the paper and there was a two page story on the Golden Girls of the Gold Coast South of Brisbane. The Golden Girls were women in their 60s & 70s who raised money for charities. I thought about this and decided to pick out a name of one of the Golden Girls and see if I could get them interested in raising money for the Paralympics. I wrote and got no reply for over three weeks, when I had a call from Heather Haynes advising me that a fund raiser had been arranged and would be at the Sheraton Hotel in January and I would be invited along with my wife and four other guests. The event was a celebration of the Chinese New Year and $60,000 was raised on the gala night. Gerard and his wife Heather were my guests on the night and the occasion presented the opportunity of strengthening the relationship with the community for future raising of funds. The funds raised went to the Queensland Paralympic Committee as I was determined to show just how funds can be raised in each State.

Through being located in Brisbane Gerard Gossens was able to work closely with the relevant Departments to promote Paralympics and obtain similar conditions to those of the Olympics such as the provision of pocket money for athletes selected for Atlanta and subsequent games.

The success of the Australian Team in Atlanta was most rewarding with Australia finishing second in the medal count to the USA. The team returned to Australia with accolades coming from all directions and the Lord Mayor announcing that he had invited the team to have a Team parade through the city for the people of Sydney to show their appreciation of the athletes. This was the first time ever and it was a most satisfying day for everyone involved. From here on the Australian Paralympic Committee has been held in high esteem and there is certainly no stigma held by the public. The pathway for the disabled to gain employment has improved significantly over the past fifteen years along with an increase in the number of disabled people entering university and higher learning.

Besides my best wishes for a successful conference I would like to address one issue close to my heart and that is the Stoke Mandeville Hospital and the Sports Centre. This really is the home of sport for people with a disability through the work of Sir Ludwig Guttmann who started the rehabilitation of injured people by improvising sports. It has been copied throughout the world with great success and created a better life for the unfortunate people with spinal injuries and amputations.

I must admit I was going to write to someone and suggest that the Queen in her 60th year of reign could install the name of Royal to the Stoke Mandeville Hospital and the disability world could have a memorial mounted at the Sports Centre in honour of Sir Ludwig Guttmann. Such a move would go down very well at the London Paralympic Games. Perhaps Sir Phillip Craven could take this up.


While I have been positive about Disabled Sport I believe we should emphasise that participation in sport and recreation is but a step in being included in society and in fact it opens up a new world in communications, education and employment. Being a successful sportsperson and all the accolades it brings is great but having a career in a field of interest is essential.

Bob McCullough OAM