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27 July 2022

There’s something to be said about watching Australians represent our fine country. It’s exciting, exhilarating, and brings all sorts of people together to celebrate national pride and our wonderful athletes.

Tomorrow the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games kick off and the Australian line-up features Olympic champions and fresh faces repping Australia for the first time in the Games. There will be 435 Aussie athletes all vying for medals in 20 sports.

Regular readers of my column will know I am an Olympics fanatic and I hold a deep respect for our Commonwealth Games athletes too.

More than 5000 athletes from 72 nations will compete at Alexander Stadium from July 28 to August 8.

My friend Peter Bol, who became an overnight household name at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, will compete in his first Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in the men’s 800m.

While no doubt most of the country will tune in to watch and cheer on the green and gold, it would be remiss of me not to point out eight of the sports in the Commonwealth Games will feature some of our para-athletes. This is the most events for athletes with disability in the Games’ history.

It’s been 40 years since we saw para-sports linked to the Commonwealth Games, but it’s only been 20 years since para-events were in the Games with full medal status.

What you might not know is Australia has had some momentous contributions when it comes to para-sports and the Games.

Back in the 1950s George Bedbrook, who was director of the Spinal Unit of Royal Perth Hospital, organised para-sport in Australia and by 1959, the Paraplegic Association of WA began to promote the 1962 Paraplegic Empire Games.

Fast forward to 2018 and the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games took para-sports to a whole new level, with 38 medal events across seven sports.

For the 2022 Games, we see eight para-sports, with athletes with disabilities competing for medals in swimming, athletics, powerlifting, lawn bowls, table tennis, track, triathlon and basketball.

This year is also the first time the Commonwealth Games have an integrated program of sports featuring athletes and para-athletes. No separate schedules. No separate games. It’s a unified approach to showcase the brilliant competitors across the Commonwealth.

I have spoken and written extensively about the remarkable prowess of athletes with disability competing in para-sports. They are just as good, just as determined and just as capable as their fellow athletes who don’t have disabilities.

Take Ella Sbljak, who was born in my own electorate of Maribyrnong. Ella has been competing in wheelchair basketball for more than half a decade and at age 30 has represented Australia countless times. Most notably, Ella and her fellow Gilders teammates broke a nine-year drought when they competed in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.

If you’re a runner like me (well, I like to think I am) you might be more inclined to watch the triathlons. Gerrard Gosens OAM is making his Commonwealth Games debut but that’s not to say he hasn’t already got a long list of accolades under his name. Gerrard is a three-time Paralympian, competing in goalball and athletics.

Two great Australians, who have represented us all on the big stage and it’s only the beginning.

In the coming years Australia will be inundated with incredible sporting events, where we will have the opportunity to watch our fine athletes compete.

Our new Minister for Sport Annika Wells has called it the green and gold decade ahead for Australian sport.

Some of the big ticket items, include the Virtus Oceania Asia Games to be held in Brisbane later this year.

In 2026, the next Commonwealth Games will be in Victoria and it will be the first Games to introduce a new multi-city model bringing global sport to four regional hubs: Geelong, Bendigo, Ballarat and Gippsland.

And then in 2032, Australia will also have its third city to host the Olympics, with Brisbane becoming the host city for the Olympics and Paralympics.

As the Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, I may be biased, but I am proud to fly the flag and be a blatant promoter of our athletes with a disability.

I encourage all Australians to get behind our team in Birmingham and watch their profound ability.

Watch Birmingham 2022 on Seven.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday 27 July 2022.