When Catherine Clark officially takes charge as Paralympics Australia (PA) chief executive early next year, it will mark the start of the most important period in the organisation’s history.
- Clark wants Australia to top the medal tally at the Brisbane 2032 Paralympic Games
- She says planning for Brisbane is a key priority over the next five years
- Clark will be in the role of PA chief executive when Australia competes at next year’s Winter Paralympic Games
Aiming to build from the success of its Tokyo 2020 Paralympics campaign, Clark will oversee the Beijing Winter Games in March, followed by the Birmingham Commonwealth Games.
Clarke and PA will then turn their attention towards the Paris 2024 Paralympics and the all-important Brisbane Games in 2032.
“It’s quite daunting when you say it like that, but it’s also incredibly exciting,” said Clark, who begins at PA in January.
Clark, who will depart her role as Netball Queensland chief executive in December, will replace Lynn Anderson at PA.
Anderson is stepping down after six years in the role of PA chief executive.
With a resume that includes various leadership positions, including being chief executive of Gymnastics Australia and Gym Sports New Zealand, Clark is already thinking big.
“We want to make sure we’ve got that talent pipeline so that [in] Brisbane 2032 … we’d love to be number one on that medal tally,” she said.
Sydney 2000 was Australia’s most successful Paralympics, with the host nation finishing at the top of the medal tally.
Australia won 63 gold, 39 silver and 47 bronze for a total of 149 medals.
PA president Jock O’Callaghan said Clark would be leading the organisation through a crucial period.
“The next five years can determine the success of the Australian Paralympic movement for the following 20 years,” O’Callaghan said.
Clark’s appointment comes amid three-time gold medallist Kurt Fearnley being elected as the Paralympic athlete representative for the Brisbane 2032 Organising Committee.
“From an athletes’ perspective, the 2032 Games can be the best in history. I have no doubt about that,” Fearnley said.
For the likes of Fearnley and Clark, the Brisbane Paralympics represent a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to make meaningful social change and showcase diversity and inclusion on a global level.
As well as building on the momentum of Brisbane 2032, Clark’s focus will be on increasing participation in Para-sport, as well as identifying and removing barriers to engagement.
“The Paralympic movement has done amazing things and we’ve come forward in leaps and bounds, and I certainly believe my role is about amplifying this amazing base,” Clark said.
Focus on engagement
Clark is mindful of needing to capitalise on other vital areas of the Paralympic movement, such as fan engagement and commercial partnerships.
Tokyo’s Paralympics opening ceremony drew a record audience for the Seven Network last August, reaching 1.94 million people and ranking number one in its time slot for all demographics.
It smashed the previous record set at the Beijing Games in 2008 by 42 per cent.
Clark said she wanted PA to take advantage of this success for upcoming Paralympic events ahead of Brisbane 2032.
“From a broadcast engagement perspective, the Paralympics always performs very well,” she said.
“I see a unique opportunity to [further] drive innovative commercialisation at a time when inspiring stories, strong role models and meaningful partnerships have never been more important.”
While the nation has a proud Paralympic history, allegations of abuse in elite sport have risen in other Australian sports, including swimming, gymnastics and more recently football.
Clarke said she was unable to provide any official comment on behalf of PA as she was yet to begin her role, but protecting the safety and wellbeing of athletes would be a top priority.
“There’s a real spotlight on this issue for all sports,” she said.
Clarke said there also needed to be more awareness as “people with disabilities can have another layer of vulnerability”.
“This is something I need to be more watchful of,” she said.
Clark’s immediate focus will be the Beijing 2022 Winter Paralympic Games once she begins at PA.
Her first task will be making sure athletes in Beijing compete and return home safely, given the world remains in a coronavirus-affected environment.
Clark praised the efforts of those who managed Australia’s Tokyo contingent, which consisted of 179 athletes and 168 staff.
It was Australia’s largest Paralympic team outside of Sydney 2000.
Australia finished eighth on the medal tally, with 21 gold, 29 silver and 30 bronze.
“What a fantastic effort to protect the health and wellbeing of our athletes [in Tokyo] and deliver an 80-medal haul,” Clark said.
Clark said there was no slowing down for PA with Brisbane 2032 on the horizon.
“We want to continue to grow, to tell our story, to build more resources so we can have more athletes participate,” she said.