Ella Sabljak & Richard Nicholson - Evolution of para sport

In this edition of On Side, we explore the evolution of Paralympic sport in Australia with Paralympians Ella Sabljak and Richard Nicholson. 

Evolution of para sport in Australia

This episode of On Side explores the evolution of Paralympic sport in Australia. It discusses the need to include Paralympic voices in decision making, along with the role Paralympic sport can play as a vehicle for greater social inclusion and to understanding disability.



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    Tim Gavel: Hello and welcome to On Side, I'm Tim Gavel. This week's program explores the evolution of Paralympic sport in Australia. We also discuss the need to include Paralympic voices in the decision-making process, along with the role Paralympic sport can play as a vehicle for greater social inclusion and to understand disability. 

    Today's guests include Paralympians, Ella Sabljak and Richard Nicholson. Ella is a member of the World Anti-Doping Agency Athlete Council and Sport Integrity Australia's Athlete Advisory Group, while Richard Nicholson is a two-time Paralympic silver medallist and part of Sport Integrity Australia's Sports Partnership team. 

    First, whether you're an NRL, AFL, Netball, cricket or A-League fan, all eyes will be on the Matildas ahead of the FIFA Women's World Cup later this month as 32 teams from around the world compete for football's holy grail. 

    While off the field, racism and abuse in sport have dominated the headlines as players, coaches and codes call out abuse, particularly online. In January, Sport Integrity Australia launched a safe sport hotline, which includes an anonymous reporting capability that covers wider racial and cultural issues in sport for people who feel as though they've been discriminated against in their sport. 

    You can call the hotline on 1800 161 361



    Tim Gavel: Our first guest, Ella Sabljak, has more than 15 years' experience at an international level. Ella captained Australia's Under 25 Women's Wheelchair Basketball Team the Devils, to a World Championship silver medal and is also a Commonwealth Games silver medallist. 

    She's currently the Education Manager at Paralympics Australia and a member of the Australian Steelers Team competing at the Asia Oceania Wheelchair Rugby Championships in Tokyo.

    Ella, welcome to On Side. You're a champion athlete, but you've also become a leading advocate for athlete’s rights. What lead you down this path?

    Ella Sabljak: I've always fought for the underdog and love helping athletes have their own voice and so when I started my journey in this, it only started as a captain of a team and rallying the troops together, hearing what they have to say and relaying that message back to coaches, and then from there it progressed. I was nominated for our International Wheelchair Basketball Federation Athlete Commission and so there was four of us from each zone who were nominated, and we were put together as a little bit of a steering committee to help develop an athlete committee or commission in wheelchair basketball.

    So, we did all the hard work we wrote all the terms of reference, the statutes and really paved the way and, we got a little bit of a pushback from the organisation but once they saw how much the athletes added value and their voice, they started respecting us and coming to us and asking for more. So that was kind of the start of where we're at and then I was nominated by the IWBF to sit on the WADA Athlete Committee and yeah, it's just been a journey.

    Tim Gavel: When you were playing, because you played with the Gliders at the 2020 Paralympics, I just wondered, did you have some issues there as you were an athlete realising that athletes weren't having a say and didn't have too many rights?

    Ella Sabljak: It's not until you're reflecting upon it, when you're in the thick of it you don't really realise that athletes’ voices aren't heard until you're sitting back home after the fact, and you really wish you could have made an impact or you're seeing things differently.

    So, I think that reflection piece as an athlete moving forward has really like, shaped how I carry myself and how I approach situations now. So, the power of the pause, you think about it and we're trying to establish an athlete committee in Australia, and also in our zones, so the Asia Oceania zone and just trying to make the most impact we can, where we can.

    Tim Gavel: So, in terms of specifics, what sort of things are we looking at here in terms of things that you reflect on now that you think 'Well it could have been done better'?

    Ella Sabljak: Yeah. So, the classification system in wheelchair basketball, we had a little bit of an issue with the classification. The IPC reviewed the classification system and then they filtered down the results to the IWBF and then we had to do a whole review of our classification system and during COVID a number of our players got classed out, so they were deemed ineligible to participate in the Paralympic Games and it wasn't only basketball, it was multiple sports.

    Tennis, swimming, athletics, and just the way that the system was handled, and athletes weren't told until it was the last moment, so we didn't have time to prepare, it was such a shock to the system, and it was super, super scary. So, people's careers were being ended because of this decision. Not saying that it was -

    Tim Gavel: There was no consultation really.

    Ella Sabljak: No, there was absolutely no consultation. So, the athletes were taken off guard, careers were ended and so when formulating our athlete commission, we really push to have athlete voices on every different department and committee within our organisation just so that we can be across it and then relay the messages back to the athletes to prevent something like this happening again.

    Now the IPC classification review was inevitable, and it is what it is and we're not disputing that, but just the way that the situation was handled to make it a little bit more seamless for the athletes to hear those decisions. So, we're really pushing just to get athletes sitting in and discussing the meetings to have that voice.

    Tim Gavel: Do you feel as though your advocacy has reached its zenith to a certain degree, with election to the WADA 20-person committee? As an athlete representative do you feel as though 'OK, we've got a real chance now'?

    Ella Sabljak: Yeah, yeah, I really hope so. So, I, yeah, I'm super stoked. I wasn't expecting to be nominated on the WADA Athlete Council, but all my hard work and our hard work in establishing this committee and fighting for the rights of athletes pays off, and my peers can see that.

    Tim Gavel: Did you ever envisage when you were playing that you'd become a leading spokesperson for Paralympic rights?

    Ella Sabljak: No, never.

    Tim Gavel: Did you think that 'OK this is where I'm going to end up'?

    Ella Sabljak: No, no, not at all. I think sometimes I think I speak without thinking things through, like earlier on in my career. So, I'd be really vocal if I didn't like how something was handled or a situation and it was always around, coach, athlete and communication. In those situations, I've had to stop and pause and like 'How can I make impact here?', and so I really changed the way that I lead in those communication spaces to give the athlete, like to empower the athletes to say what they're thinking without repercussions or that psychological safety. Yeah, but no, I never envisioned that I would be here.

    Tim Gavel: Because if you have a look at a shopping list of some of the things that you're doing, okay so, Education Manager with Paralympics Australia, you're involved with the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation Athletes Council, WADA and you also have a role at Sport Integrity Australia as well, don't you?

    Ella Sabljak: Yeah.

    Tim Gavel: Tell us about that role.

    Ella Sabljak: So, it's quite a new position for me. So being elected onto the WADA Athlete Council gives me a spot here in the Sport Integrity Athlete Advisory Committee and it's all about learning. So, bringing everything that I've learnt from WADA and at like the highest level and how we can best impact that here in Australia and spread the message not only for para-athletes but for all athletes in Australia to make sure that we're across everything and no one gets left behind.

    Tim Gavel: Is anti-doping a major issue amongst Paralympians?

    Ella Sabljak: I wouldn't say so. I think, I personally haven't had a bad experience or know of people who've had multiple drug tests or tested positive or whatever else. So, I don't think it's a major issue within Paralympics, I mean I hope not, but in saying that we need to ensure that athletes consistently, no matter if you're able-bodied or para, are getting tested the same amount. There is a bit of a discrepancy with para-athletes being tested and I think I could speculate that it would come down to funding and whatnot, but we need to ensure that sport is clean no matter what.

    Tim Gavel: Is classification the bigger issue?

    Ella Sabljak: Yes. Yep.

    Tim Gavel: And manipulation of classification?

    Ella Sabljak: Manipulation of classification, I think the integrity there is, we're getting on top of it. We have, like, lots of educational pieces around misrepresenting yourself and our classification team at Paralympics Australia worked with Sport Integrity to develop Classification 101 and what to expect when you're getting classified so we can try and mitigate those risks early on and spread awareness and education around 'This is what's going to happen in classification. This is what's going to happen if you misrepresent yourself' and yeah, try put as much information with the athlete, empower them to make the right decisions and choices. I haven't personally seen many people manipulating classification, I've seen the systems change and other countries and other athletes. You'll look at someone and be like, 'Oh, what's going on there? You don't really match up to your points', but it's the system.

    Tim Gavel: Do you feel as though sometimes the Paralympic movement is lost in the whole thing? Because I'm talking here about awareness of sport and education, because the focus is very much on the Olympics, everybody talks about the 2032 Olympics, Paralympics just seems to get lost sometime. Do you feel as though part of your role is going to be to lift awareness of everything to do with Paralympics?

    Ella Sabljak: Yeah, absolutely. So as part of my school program that I run with Paralympics Australia, I go out to schools and I educate the kids around the Paralympic movement, I take Paralympians out with us, and they share their stories. We leave the kids with a message to be champions of change, and I'll always ask, 'What's happening in Brisbane in 2032?' and a kid will put their hand up and say, 'The Olympics!', 'So glad you said that because they're also the Paralympics that are happening.' And I put it back on to the kids, it's their challenge now to say whenever the conversation around the games is happening, we say Olympics and Paralympics because we work just as hard, we get paid not nearly as much, and it's still high-performance sport. So, we're really trying to push that message out to continually using the word Paralympics in those conversations, and when we're referring to it like ‘The Games', hopefully people will then know it's Olympics and Paralympics.

    Tim Gavel: Because it can be a driver for social change as well in the wider community. Acceptance of people with a disability and the way that they overcome their disability and it's not just about sport, is it? It's reflective of the of the wider community.

    Ella Sabljak: Yep absolutely, and I think if we're educating kids young, we can easily, I wouldn't want to say manipulate their minds, but we can try and push the positive agenda in that people with a disability, you're putting the barriers on us, it's not the other way around. And when you're the future, CEO or future construction manager or whatever it is that they're going to be the future of, they have to have a whole, like a human centred design and be super inclusive in whatever they're doing so no one gets left behind because it's not only people with disability, it's everybody.

    Tim Gavel: Discrimination, I guess, is a key topic. Harassment, racial abuse, etcetera. Discrimination is right up there though, isn't it? In terms of issues that do affect people with a disability.

    Ella Sabljak: Yeah absolutely, and we're trying to educate everybody so that it's not going to be an issue, but we only know what we know, and it has to be on us as humans to try and educate ourselves and get out there and meet as many people and be gender diverse. Expose yourself to as many different religions, races, people as possible so we can understand and have that empathy so that we can make the world a better place.

    Tim Gavel: There are specifics, aren't there? Because obviously you're involved with the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation and I wonder, sometimes I guess we look at sport through the prism of able-bodied athletes, and your role is to inject the issues associated with wheelchair basketball for instance, or people with disability in terms of wheelchairs, but your role is to inject your perspective into it. Is that how you see it?

    Ella Sabljak: Yeah. I like to look at my role as super inclusive. I think being nominated for the WADA Athlete Committee, I'm not only representing para-athletes, I'm representing all athletes in Australia on our WADA committee. So, for me, I've had to really understand what the issues are for everybody and try and see how we can influence that at that board level. It’s not an easy task and I do have those unconscious biases of para or always embedded because that's my experience and whatever I can do to help change or shift mindsets of people for the better to include everybody, I'm hoping we're getting the message.

    Tim Gavel: Because Sport Integrity Australia, I guess is seen as, very much a thorough organisation, sometimes the standard set ‘here’ aren't applied elsewhere. Do you put that perspective as well into your conversations saying, 'Well listen, we are we are reasonably well educated as far as our programs are concerned' or, well educated, they're quite strict in terms of testing and whatnot'? Are you able to put that balance into conversations that a lot is being done in Australia even though we're a long way away from everybody else?

    Ella Sabljak: Yeah, yeah, I am. And it's also really interesting hearing what other countries are doing and then how we can learn from what they're doing because over in Paris, not saying that this is a good example, but in France their NADO has almost the same amount of power as law enforcement, and that to me was shocking. But it's not too dissimilar to here in Australia, like we work alongside law enforcement and the rules are really clear and if you don't understand the rules, then I think we've done them a disservice because we haven't filled them with enough tools. It's just, for me it's a big learning piece and what I can take here in Australia and promote that. I'll try my very hardest.

    Tim Gavel: Yes. Were you aware of Sport Integrity Australia prior to joining the organisation in this role? Were you aware of everything that they did? Yeah?

    Ella Sabljak: Yeah, and it wasn't until I was looking at it from like, a WADA lens that I could see all the work that was happening behind the scenes. It was like the puzzle pieces were being put together, just around, like, the education piece that we've done here at Sport Integrity Australia around supplements and then I could see the shift, I'm like ‘Oh, yeah, that makes so much sense'. So yeah, we've had a lot to do with Sport Integrity Australia across the years, we've always had those educational pieces, talks, drug tests, so yeah, it's not a new thing for us.

    Tim Gavel: Yes and you go out and educate others, don't you? In your role with Paralympics Australia. Ideal position really, for a former primary school teacher, you're there teaching again, aren't you?

    Ella Sabljak: Yeah, combining sport and Paralympics and teaching altogether, it's a dream job.

    Tim Gavel: And an elite athlete.

    Ella Sabljak: Yep.

    Tim Gavel: Thanks very much for joining us, Ella -

    Ella Sabljak: Thank you.

    Tim Gavel: - and congratulations on the roles you've achieved.

    Ella Sabljak: Thank you so much.



    Tim Gavel: Our next guest is Richard Nicholson, a Paralympic silver medallist across two sports, powerlifting and on the track in the 4 x 100 relay. Richard's sporting Journey began in 1982 at the age of 12 in archery. Less than a year later he began training and competing in mainstream gymnastics alongside able bodied competitors. His first disability sport, powerlifting, lead to his first Paralympic Games in Atlanta in 1996 at the age of 26. Richard, thanks very much for joining On Side.

    Richard Nicholson: Oh, pleasure to be here, Tim.

    Tim Gavel: You've had an incredible journey and you're able to use that experience now, aren't you? In your current role at Sport Integrity Australia in the Partnerships team.

    Richard Nicholson: Yeah, I've managed to sort of combine both my athletic career or sporting career and a professional career in sports administration across a number of roles from the Australian Sports Commission, AIS and now in Sport Integrity.

    Tim Gavel: What do you remember most about your sporting career? Apart from the success on the track, but I guess the journey, the battle to get recognition in the first place.

    Richard Nicholson: Yeah, well, along the way I saw the evolution of the Paralympics to and disability sport in Australia go from being essentially a volunteer-based run sporting events to where the Paralympics are today and one of the major sporting events that happens worldwide and attracting global viewers and interest and corporate sponsorship. It's been a great journey to be a part of that.

    Tim Gavel: Could I take you back to those early days just to look about the experience that you had? Can you tell us some of the struggles that you had early on as a Paralympian?

    Richard Nicholson: Well, I guess when I first entered into disability sport in Australia there were so many small organisations running it, I didn't really know where I fitted in. There was all these what we call National Sporting Organisations for Disabilities and there was one for amputees and one for short statured people and one for people with intellectual impairments and one, there was just a plethora of them, one for wheelchair users and there was athletes competing across all these, sort of, competitions and it was really quite a confusing space. But slightly over time this mainstreaming came in post the Sydney Paralympics and things, our National Sporting Organisations started taking responsibility for the inclusion of people with disabilities and that was a quite an exciting journey to be part of too.

    Tim Gavel: I remember in Atlanta 1996 and as soon as the Olympics finished, all of the infrastructure suddenly went down, yet the Paralympics we're going to start two weeks later. That must have been disheartening.

    Richard Nicholson: Yeah. That was my first Paralympic Games, and I was really like all athletes, excited to get into the village and when we arrived there were literally a swarm of tradies tearing down various events and various things inside the village and dismantling it, and I thought, 'Well, what's going on here? We haven't even started yet.' And the Paralympics in 1996 were literally saved by a large donation by the Shepherd Centre in Atlanta, or those games would have been cancelled altogether.

    Tim Gavel: Was that the spark that you ended up becoming an advocate for people with a disability and their rights and the expectations is that when you thought 'Well, Gee, something's got to be done here'?

    Richard Nicholson: To be honest, I think my motivation was a little bit more intrinsic in terms of, I didn't compete well at Atlanta and I knew I could have done better so I think my main motivation following Atlanta was just to become a better athlete and I felt a lot of those other things were out of my control and I didn't really start my career in sports administration till just before Sydney Paralympics. So that's when I started to think about a bigger picture and how I could be involved in changing that for the better.

    Tim Gavel: So, it was four years later that you thought 'I'm going to make a difference here'?

    Richard Nicholson: Yeah.

    Tim Gavel: Did you receive much support from your fellow athletes when you started voicing concerns about things should be better?

    Richard Nicholson: I guess, I was working at the Australian Sports Commission at the time and being an athlete, yeah, I heard a lot of athlete voices and I could sort of, I had a voice within that organisation to think about and talk about things that weren't quite right and the inequity that was, glaringly apparent at that time between able-bodied sport and sport for people with disabilities.

    Tim Gavel: Do you think we've reached a point that is level playing field yet though?

    Richard Nicholson: It certainly changed a lot for the better. I think there's certainly always more work can be done in this space. Yeah, we're much closer.

    Tim Gavel: Because you didn't have a lot of funding, did you? In the lead up for instance to 1996 and even for the next four years, it was a home games in Sydney, so you had a bit more funding.

    Richard Nicholson: Yeah, there was a little bit more funding come in to disability sport because it was a home games and obviously Australia wants to do well at their home games and we topped the medal tally so that was an outstanding performance by all our athletes and the administrators and coaches and everyone involved, putting that event on and being part of that team, it was outstanding. But it was really post 2000 and the goodwill that the Paralympics brought throughout the Australian community, that is, I thought that really spurred on the acceptance and people wanting to be involved in disability sport, I thought post the games was the real watershed moment for disability sport in Australia.

    Tim Gavel: Because it's broader than sport, isn't it? What sport can bring to the table in terms of showcasing Paralympians and people with a disability in the incredible things that they can do, that translates to the general community, not just sport, doesn't it?

    Richard Nicholson: Yeah. Well, there was one incident at the Sydney Paralympic Games that really did change my feeling about sport and my role within it, and that was one day I was walking between a couple of the venues at Sydney Olympic Park and there was a young boy with his mother, and he said, 'Oh Mum, I wonder what that that man does?' 'What sport does that man play?' And it really made me stop and think because for the previous 20 years I've heard children sort of say 'Why does that man use crutches?' or 'Why is that man in a wheelchair?', or 'What's wrong with that man?' and it's simple, fair enough questions from a young curious mind. But this time, he was talking about 'I wonder what sport that man plays' and I realised that the power of sport has to change the perceptions of disability within the community, and I was very fast learning what sport was doing for me in my life and changing, I guess perceptions I had of myself. It was a really powerful moment.

    Tim Gavel: The language has changed as well, which brings me to my next point about talking about perceptions but also the way that we describe Paralympians. It's no longer people with disabilities competing in sport, it's Paralympians, let's see what incredible feats they can achieve.

    Richard Nicholson: Yeah, the language has changed and that's actually quite important I think that society's beliefs and cultures and values are based around the language that we do use, so change in language can go a long way. And leading into the London Paralympic Games, for instance, Sebastian Coe, he was the head honcho he was running the show and he always, anytime he mentioned the Olympic Games he always mentioned the Paralympic Games in the same sentence, and he promoted it as a six-week sporting festival, as one event with two games. And the language that he used and the way that the London Paralympics in particular was promoted was fantastic.

    Tim Gavel: So how do you see Paralympic sport and the role of Paralympians continuing to influence? You being a former athlete now in your role at Sport Integrity Australia with the Partnerships team, what influence do you see that can be made through your eyes and your role here?

    Richard Nicholson: Well, if you just look at sort of recently, the current batch of Paralympians, they've got articles not only just sort of on the back pages of sport which was a feat in itself at some stage. I remember Louise Sauvage winning a Boston Marathon and barely getting two lines in the news brief, and nowadays you've got athletes like Madison de Rozario and she's appearing in all sorts of different magazines across different media spaces and there's just a lot more promotion and a lot more acceptance. People want to know about the stories behind the athletes and things like that so yeah, it's changed significantly.

    Tim Gavel: Yes, the back stories have become increasingly important, haven't they?

    Richard Nicholson: Yeah definitely, and certainly everyone has a back story, but a lot of the Paralympic ones are quite intriguing. They're all a little bit different of course, and you've got someone like Curtis McGrath, he lost both his legs in an explosion in Afghanistan and he's now one of the world's top paddlers and he's got a fantastic back story, and every Paralympian has a fantastic back story.

    Tim Gavel: Do you see yourself playing an important role going forward in Paralympic sport? Even though you're not a competitor anymore, but do you sort of see yourself as being an important voice out there?

    Richard Nicholson: Probably not in the mainstream, but certainly I'm conscious of my lived experience within Sport Integrity Australia and I would like to think that I would be able to bring something to the table within the organisation, across the organisation that may have some impact across Paralympic sport. If not, just making sure that everyone in our organisation is aware of disability sport and how it operates and how we can support it.

    Tim Gavel: Yes, because that that lived experience that you've had becomes incredibly relatable, doesn't it? To athletes, administrators when they know that you've been there, done that?

    Richard Nicholson: Yeah, well, I guess lived experience, I mean if you haven't had that lived experience it just becomes a case study. But if you've had that lived experience, I think it adds a lot more weight to anything that you might be saying or wanting to achieve or influence.

    Tim Gavel: In general life, is it easy to get around for yourself in a wheelchair? Are there things that still need to be done infrastructure wise and acceptance wise? Do you still feel as though there are important steps to be made there?

    Richard Nicholson: Oh, Australia as a whole is a pretty good, well-developed country and we're pretty good in that space but there's, yeah there's the odd occasion where you get where there's just steps, that's the only access into a building and things like that. I think overall the access, physical access in Australia is pretty good. Unfortunately, the biggest barrier to, I guess inclusion of people with disabilities there's always that attitudinal barrier, and certainly in the last 20 years I think that a lot of those barriers have been sort of broken down, but there's still sometimes problems. Sometimes flying domestically in Australia on our airlines can be quite challenging for people in wheelchairs and people with disabilities, so that still occurs.

    Tim Gavel: But life's OK.

    Richard Nicholson: Yeah life's OK.

    Tim Gavel: Good on you, Richard. Thanks very much for joining us on On Side and all the best and well done on your role here at Sport Integrity Australia.

    Richard Nicholson: OK, thanks very much Tim.



    Tim Gavel: Thanks for listening to On Side, I'm Tim Gavel. We'll have another episode shortly.

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    For more information on Sport Integrity Australia please visit our website sportintegrity.gov.au or check out our Clean Sport app.