Weightlifting: Lean advocate for Parafed Otago, 45 years on

Dunedin's Bill Lean with the gold medal he won at the Paralympics at Toronto in 1976. Photo by...
Dunedin's Bill Lean with the gold medal he won at the Paralympics at Toronto in 1976. Photo by Craig Baxter.
Bill Lean was one of the pioneers of elite parafed sport when it was introduced to New Zealand in the 1960s.

Lean (68) is the only survivor of the three Dunedin paraplegic athletes who competed at the Commonwealth Paraplegic Games in Jamaica in 1966.

The others were Fr Leo Close and Graeme Marett.

Fr Close introduced paraplegic sport to New Zealand when he was a priest in Dunedin in the 1960s.

The work of the trio was highlighted at the 45th anniversary dinner of Parafed Otago this week.

Lean, these days a member of the Parafed Otago committee, competed in international paraplegic sport from 1966 to 1980.

A highlight was the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Dunedin when he won a gold medal in heavyweight weightlifting with a world record total of 202.50kg.

At the Paralympics at Toronto, Canada, in 1976, Lean won the gold medal in the shot put with a world record distance of 8.87m.

Lean was aged 19 when he fell out of a tree and became a paraplegic.

It was a traumatic time but his approach to the injury was positive.

"You could sit there and sulk about it which doesn't do you any good or you can get off your butt and go out and do something," Lean said.

"That was my philosophy."

Life was not easy for a paraplegic who wanted to become an elite athlete.

"We had to work five days a week and train after work. We competed in archery on Saturday and it was back into training on Sunday morning."

Everyday problems are multiplied for a paraplegic.

"I know I'm disabled when I try to get out of bed in the morning," Lean said.

"Only the bits of my body that I can't feel are not aching.

"By the time I've gone to the bathroom, got dressed and gone down the path to get the newspaper I've warmed my body up a bit and am moving a bit more freely."

Lean is disappointed the Fespic Games are no more.

The games, held for the last time in 2006, provided international regional competition between countries such as Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.

"It was used as a feeder to give experience to new athletes and New Zealand usually sent a team of 15."

The value of such an approach was shown in 1976 when six athletes qualified for the Paralympic Games at Toronto later that year.

Now it was more difficult for Parafed athletes to get the experience they needed to progress to the next level, he said.

For instance, the Otago Parafed president, John Marrable, the top wheelchair table tennis player in the country, would have to take three months off work to compete in the United Kingdom and Europe to qualify to get into a Commonwealth Games or a Paralympics.

It would cost him $40,000 with no guarantee he would make the team.

"It's a waste not having regional games," Lean said.

"If you haven't got anyone coming through from the grassroots you are never going to have anything at the top."

The organisers of the Commonwealth Paraplegic Games in Dunedin in 1974 were praised for the professional way in which the event was conducted.

But this was not continued at the Paralympics in Toronto two years later.

"There were eight athletes in [New Zealander] Eve Rimmer's group in the shot put," Lean said.

"Believe it or not, when the shot put landed the official put a ballpoint pen into the ground to mark it. It should have been a colour-coded marker stick with nails that drove into the ground."

John Masters was a key man in the organisation of the Dunedin event.

After the Montreal Olympic Games he went to Toronto to help.

"Until John arrived those games were a complete muck-up," Lean said.

"I won my gold medal at 2pm and was presented with it at 11pm at night."

The best-run international event during his time at the top was in the Netherlands in 1980 where everything was organised "to a tee".

Lean was not allowed to compete because he was diagnosed with heart problems during the mandatory medical tests in the Netherlands.

At a glance:

Age: 68.
Home town: Dunedin.
Sport: Paraplegic.
When he became paraplegic: Fell out of a tree at age 19.
International: 1966-80.
Best performances: 1974, Commonwealth Games, Dunedin, weightlifting gold medal and world record of 202.50kg; 1976 Paralympics Toronto, gold medal and world record shot put (8.87m).



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