Written by: Donald Royer
Wheelchair racing featured as an exhibition competition at the Summer Olympic Games appeared within the Olympic athletics program from 1984 to 2004. On each occasion two track races were held: a men’s 1,500m race and a women’s 800m race. This marked the first time that events for athletes with disabilities were featured at the Summer Olympic Games. Informal discussions surrounding the idea of staging one or more wheelchair sport demonstration events had started to take place as early as the 1980s, and it was hoped that by staging exhibition events, it would inevitably lead to the growth of wheelchair sports at an international scale and even lead to full medal status at the Olympic Games.
In the summer of 1983, Donald Royer – then a member of the board of directors for the International Stoke Mandeville Federation (ISMF) – travelled to London, UK with Eric Russell, Chairman of Athletics at the ISMF. The two of them were to meet with the Secretary General of the International Amateur Athletics Federation to discuss staging an athletics exhibition event. It was decided by the International Olympic Committee that a men’s 1,500m race and a women’s 800m race would be showcased at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
Shortly thereafter, a selection process took place to determine the 8 finalists who would take part in the men’s 1,500m demonstration event. Following the selection, three Canadian wheelchair athletes were chosen to compete: André Viger, Rick Hansen, and Mel Fitzgerald. With this final selection there were high hopes that one day there could be the possibility for inclusion of these two events as full medal status, and perhaps even full inclusion of other events for the other disability groups.
The race went well and was well-received by the media and the public but, unfortunately, in front of a very small number of spectators. This was due in part to the fact that the event took place during the morning session, whereas the “more important” events or finals were always held during the evening session.
At the end of the inaugural race, the results were as follows:
1. Paul Van Winkel, Belgium 3:58.58
2. Randy Snow, United States of America 4:00.02
3. André Viger, Canada 4:00.47
4. Mel Fitzgerald, Canada 4:00.65
5. Jurgen Geider, West Germany 4:00.71
6. Peter Trotter, Australia 4:00.83
7. Rick Hansen, Canada 4:02.75
8. Jim Martinson, United States of America 4:21.37
As the race was only an exhibition event, no official medals were presented to the top three racers, and only flowers were presented by IOC President, Juan Anton Samaranch. However, at the time, there was such hope that this exhibition event would open the door to full medal status at the Olympic Games, that whether or not athletes received a medal was not perceived as a big issue.
The men’s 1,500m and women’s 800m exhibition events at the Summer Olympic Games were contested until it was discontinued after the 2004 Games in Athens. The decision to drop the exhibition race prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games was controversial, with many athletes stating that it was a major set-back for the sport. O tempora o mores.
1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games - Men's 1,500 Demo Race (full).