Neroli Fairhall became the first disabled athlete to take part in an Olympic Games when she competed in the women’s archery event at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. It was yet another remarkable achievement in a unique career.
Two years previously, at Brisbane, Fairhall became the first disabled athlete to compete at a Commonwealth Games and, what’s more, she stunned sports followers by winning a gold medal.
The 38-year-old Fairhall’s performance at Brisbane was incredible enough, but when the years of coping with her disability while she trained and competed around the world are considered, it was truly astonishing. She became an inspiration to other New Zealanders with disabilities.
Fairhall, born in Christchurch in 1944, was an active young woman when she had a motorcycle accident on the Port Hills in 1969. The rescue took an age – she lay helpless for 21 hours. Worse, it was discovered that she was paralysed from the waist down.
Before her accident, Fairhall had represented Canterbury at national pony club championships. Her riding career was over, but at the urging of New Zealand’s most famous disabled athlete, Eve Rimmer, she tried the shot put. Soon she discovered that she had ability as an archer. She had excellent concentration, thrived on competition, was calm, and had a good eye.
At her first national archery championship, in 1976, she placed third. She improved steadily and was selected in the New Zealand team for the 1979 Australian national championships in Perth.
There was a crushing disappointment for Fairhall in 1980. She earned selection for the Moscow Olympics, a historic achievement, but was unable to participate because of the American-led boycott. She had won her first national title that year and, by way of consolation, travelled to the Paralympics at Arnheim Holland, where she won a gold medal and set a world record for the double FITA round.
Fairhall won her second national title in 1981, after a tight contest with her closest rival, Ann Shurrock, of Ashburton. The pair vied for New Zealand archery honours throughout the 1980s.
Both women were chosen for the Brisbane Commonwealth Games, when archery made its only games appearance. For preparation, Fairhall competed at the world championships in Italy, and her 16th placing, in a field of 92, was encouraging.
The women’s double FITA, an arduous four-day competition, was held at the Murarrie Range in Brisbane. Fairhall struggled with the wind over the 70 and 60-metre ranges on the first day, which she finished in 12th place. She was nothing if not determined, and gradually improved her position. After the second day she was fourth, within range of the leader, Belfast teenager Janet Yates.
Yates faded slightly on the third day and Canadian Lucille Lemay led. Shurrock was second, three points behind, and Fairhall was a further five points adrift, in third.
The first round of the final day was over 50 metres and Yates stormed back into the lead, with Fairhall her closest challenger. Yates began the final session – a 30-metre round – strongly and swept to a formidable five-point lead. With 285 of the 288 arrows shot, she still led. But the pressure told and the Northern Ireland schoolgirl muffed her last three shots. Fairhall, meanwhile, was rock-solid under pressure, finishing with three consecutive bulls.
This put them level on 2373 points. After 20 minutes the scorers announced that Fairhall had won the countback by 60 bulls to 57 and was the gold medallist.
There followed scenes of emotion and jubilation. Everyone was proud of the gallant New Zealander. Well, not quite everyone. At the post-event press conference, one cynical journalist asked Fairhall if, in the windy conditions, it was a help or a hindrance to shoot from a wheelchair. Fairhall’s answer has become one of the great New Zealand sports quotes. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve never shot standing up.”
At the Los Angeles Olympics two years later, Fairhall totalled 2357 points and finished 35th in a field of 47. It was not a particularly happy Games for her – her steel wheelchair caused nightmares, setting off metal-detection scanners at airports. Security personnel wanted to inspect every part and Fairhall had to be lifted out so that even her air-filled cushion could be searched. She was also bothered by dozens of interview request from journalists wanting to speak to the first disabled Olympian.
Fairhall eventually competed at five world championships, the last in Turkey in 1993, plus various wheelchair events around the world. She won five national titles and tried desperately get to a second Olympics. Even when she was 51, she was aiming for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, but a chronic shoulder injury, which required reconstructive surgery, proved too big a handicap. She competed in four Paralympics, the first, in 1972, in track and field, the second, in 1980, in both track and field and archery, and the last two, in 1988 and 2000, in just archery.
She was a New Zealand Sportsman of the Year finalist after her 1982 Commonwealth Games heroics, and was made a life member of Archery New Zealand.
Fairhall later became an administrator for disabled sport and coached elite-level New Zealand archers. She died in 2006, aged 61.
She was awarded with an MBE for services to her sport and the Lonsdale Cup in 1982.