Australia’s delegation to the Beijing Paralympic Games in 2008 – 167 athletes (95 male and 72 female) and 122 officials across 13 sports (out of 20) – was the country’s largest team ever to an away Games.
After a period of financial austerity leading into the 2004 Paralympics, the Australian Paralympic Committee was on a more secure financial footing, assisted by a significant increase in federal government funding in 2007. Since 2004, it had introduced new programs in talent identification, classification, sports science/medicine and education, all of which directly related to the team’s performance and profile at the Beijing Games.
The team sent to Beijing was described as the emergence of the new generation of Australian athletes, with 56 percent of the team attending their first Paralympic Games. Almost 45 percent of the Australian Team’s athletes were women, which represented the highest proportion of female competitors to represent the nation at any Paralympic Games. Kath Proudfoot became the first athlete identified through the Talent Search program to medal at the Paralympics.
Australians at home had more opportunities than any time in history to follow the triumphs and tragedies of their athletes through a combination of television and other media. Total media coverage of the Beijing Games was up more than 65 percent on Athens four years earlier, the result of a strategy created by the APC which included targeting releases and stories to appropriate outlets, working closely with Australian Associated Press (AAP) to maximise distribution of key stories, developing relationships with editors and key journalists, developing a program of events and activities, and providing quality background information and stories.
The APC’s internal target for the Australian Team was a top-5 finish on the overall medal tally. This was a challenging goal, considering that China was expected to dominate as the home nation, the traditional success of Great Britain and the USA, and the rapid development of the sporting talent in countries such as the Ukraine, Brazil and South Africa. Despite the intense competition, Australia met that goal, finishing fourth overall with 79 medals, and fifth on the gold medal tally, with 23 gold medals. Some extraordinary individual performances by Australian athletes significantly contributed to the medal tally. Four athletes alone won a total of 14 gold medals, contributing more than half of total gold won by Australian Paralympians: Matthew Cowdrey (swimming – 5 gold); Peter Leek (swimming – 3 gold); Heath Francis (athletics – 3 gold); and Evan O’Hanlon (athletics – 3 gold).
Australians set 21 new world records, 31 Paralympic records, 79 Australian records and recorded 164 personal bests. Australia excelled in team sports and relays, its three team sport teams winning medals and five of the six relay events. While the Australian team had achieved the APC’s medal target, the Beijing Games also provided a strong reminder of how highly competitive Paralympic sport had become and the effort and resources that were required to be successful. The advantage Australia had enjoyed in 2000 had evaporated as other nations employed the same high performance approach and allocated greater spending to Paralympic sport.