Paul Bird OAM, the gold medal-winning Australian swimmer who revolutionised the way Paralympic teams are structured, has been awarded the International Paralympic Committee’s greatest honour, the Paralympic Order.
IPC President Andrew Parsons announced Bird as one of four global recipients of the highly prestigious award on Sunday.
Bird, 67, has devoted four decades to the Paralympic Movement as an athlete, Team Captain, Chef de Mission or Deputy Chef de Mission at five Paralympic Games, Paralympics Australia Board Member and as President of the Oceania Paralympic Committee. He has left an indelible mark through his professionalism, passion and humanity.
“I am extremely honoured to be considered a worthy recipient of this prestigious award from the International Paralympic Committee,” Bird said.
“This journey commenced for me more than 40 years ago as my rehabilitation, but my disability quickly became my ability to connect, challenge and lead change.
“We are a community that is made up of numerous outstanding individuals who have dedicated their lives to advocate for social inclusion and to provide hope, opportunity and a pathway for our disadvantaged through sport. So, to be considered as worthy to join this prestigious group of recipients of the Paralympic Order is quite humbling.”
The three other Paralympic Order recipients named last night were Dutch board executive of the International Paralympic Committee Rita van Driel, Rising Phoenix documentary creator Greg Nugent and Japanese Paralympic Committee President Yasushi Yamawaki.
IPC President Parsons said the Paralympic Order was no less than Bird deserved for his service.
“Few people have had as big an impact on the Paralympic Movement as Paul, and Australia should be very proud of his achievements,” Parsons said.
“Without doubt he has been a revolutionary: back when people were thinking about change Paul was actively doing it. He had a singular vision to develop a ‘One Team’ approach at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games and ensured that Para-athletes were seen as athletes first and not defined by their impairment. That thinking is standard now.
“Over the last 15 years, Paul has worked exhaustively to develop Paralympic sport across the Oceania region. There are thousands of people getting the opportunity to become involved in the Paralympic Movement because of Paul’s dedication. He is a coach to athletes, a mentor to National Paralympic Committees and a fundraiser dedicated to improving the level of support that Para-sport receives across the region.
“I’m thrilled for Paul, the Oceania Paralympic Committee and Paralympics Australia that the Games are returning to Australia in 2032. If history is anything to go by then I am sure he will be at the forefront of ensuring that the Brisbane 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games will be the most inclusive sporting event ever.”
Bird’s story is one of enduring commitment. After his leg was amputated due to a motorcycle accident when he was 18, he continued competing in sports, including swimming, and won a gold medal as part of the 4×100 metre freestyle relay team at the 1980 Paralympics. He was the Team Captain at the 1984 Paralympics, where he won a second gold medal in the 4×100 metre freestyle relay and a silver medal in the 100m backstroke.
Between Seoul 1988 and Athens 2004, Bird was an integral member of the Australian Team staff, including as Chef de Mission for the Sydney and Athens Games.
In 2000 he was awarded the Australian Sports Medal, in 2002 he received the Order of Australia Medal and in 2010 he was awarded Paralympics Australia’s highest honour, the Paralympic Medal. In between, in 2005, he was elected President of the Oceania Paralympic Committee.
Paralympics Australia President Jock O’Callaghan said all Australians should celebrate Bird’s ascension to the Paralympic Order.
“Australia has many sporting heroes, but few have made such a diverse contribution to the betterment of sport, particularly for those who have a disability,” O’Callaghan said.
“Over many years Paul was a brilliant performer as an athlete and manager and, as an administrator, he drove policy change that had a global impact.
“On behalf of Paralympics Australia, thank you to President Parsons and the International Paralympic Committee for recognising Paul’s work in this deeply meaningful way and congratulations to the three other worthy recipients who were named.”
Paralympics Australia Chief Executive Lynne Anderson said Bird had played a unique role in the evolution of sport for people with a disability.
“Apart from his service to Australian Paralympic Teams between 1980 and 2004 and his work across our region, perhaps Paul’s greatest legacy is that he transformed the way Paralympic teams are structured,” Anderson said.
“Before the Sydney Paralympics, Paul successfully advocated for team members to no longer be defined by their impairment. Instead of teams being built according to whether the athletes were amputees, wheelchair users, vision impaired or those with cerebral palsy, he set about bringing Paralympic athletes together as a single team.
“He wanted to make it about sport, not about the disability an athlete had. This concept changed the way the athletes saw themselves and the way they were viewed by the public.
“That idea was adopted around the world and has played an immeasurable role in building the Paralympic Movement up to what it is today.”
Bird is the fifth Australian to receive the Paralympic Order. The others are former Paralympics Australia President Greg Hartung, President of the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games Organising Committee Dr John Grant, IPC Regional Representative South Pacific George Dunstan and President of the International Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Sports Federation Bob McCullough.
By: David Sygall, Paralympics Australia