Education and Early Career in Parasport
Born in Eston, a small town in Saskatchewan, Robert Steadward earned a Bachelor of Physical Education and a Master of Science at the University of Alberta and a PhD at the University of Oregon. Steadward's achievements in the world of adapted sport began in the 1960s when he started coaching the Edmonton Handicaddies, a wheelchair basketball club. He helped organize the first wheelchair sport national championships in Canada, held in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1968.
Later, Steadward coached the swim, track and wheelchair basketball teams of the Paralympic Sports Association. In 1971, he created the Alberta Wheelchair Sports Association and headed the Canadian delegation to the Pan American Games in Jamaica. Next, he coached the Canadian national team at the 1972 Paralympic Games in Heidelberg and the 1973 International Stoke Mandeville Games.
In 1976, Steadward was responsible for Canadian team operations at the Torontolympiad (the 1976 Paralympic Summer Games), and in the 1980s was president of the Canadian Federation of Sport Organizations for the Disabled (CFSOD).
The Steadward Centre
Robert Steadward founded the University of Alberta's Research and Training Centre for the Physically Disabled in 1978. After Rick Hansen’s Man in Motion tour (1985–87), the centre was renamed the Rick Hansen Centre. Now called The Steadward Centre for Personal & Physical Achievement, this multi-disability fitness, research and lifestyle facility has developed a worldwide reputation. As CEO of the facility and a pioneer in the field of adapted physical activity, Steadward helped to establish related studies at universities nationally and throughout the world.
International Paralympic Committee
At the 1980 Paralympic Summer Games in Arnhem, the Netherlands, Robert Steadward encountered the problems involved in four different organizations running one competition. At the time, the Paralympic Games were run by the following groups: the International Sport Organisation for the Disabled (ISOD), the International Stoke Mandeville Games Federation (ISMGF), the International Blind Sports Federation (IBSA), and the Cerebral Palsy International Sports and Recreation Association (CPISRA). The need for one central organization was clear.
In 1983–84, Steadward and the Canadian Federation of Sport Organizations for the Disabled (CFSOD) helped develop a proposal that called for a new structure for disabled sport— one designed on a sport structure, rather than a medical or rehabilitation structure, with democratic national representation. When the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) was formed in 1989, Steadward was elected as its first president.
During the 1988 Olympic Winter Games in Calgary, Alberta, he met the International Olympic Committee (IOC) president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, to discuss how athletes with a disability could be included in the Olympics. As a result of Steadward's initiative, Samaranch encouraged the international federations to include demonstration events for athletes with disabilities in competitions. In 1990, the IPC formed a committee (later named the Commission for Inclusion of Athletes with a Disability), which led in 2002 to the full integration of athletes with disabilities at the Commonwealth Games.
Steadward's presentation to the IOC Joint Assembly on 17 December 1994 was the first of its kind on disability sport. He said, "The goal of the Olympic movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practised without discrimination of any kind. Discrimination, therefore, is not acceptable in either spirit or in practice on the basis of disability. Discrimination on the basis of disability is no different and is as objectionable as discrimination on the basis of race, colour, sex, religion or politics."
From 1989 to 2001, the IPC had great success under Steadward's leadership. While growing from 37 to 172 nations, the IPC created a sport-organization constitution, marketing committee, media commission, medical committee and technical department. At the 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games, sell-out crowds watched over 3,800 athletes compete. The same year, Steadward and IOC president Samaranch signed a memorandum of understanding that formally connected the IPC and IOC.
In 2001, Philip Craven was elected president of the IPC, while Steadward became Honorary President. That year, he also retired from the University of Alberta, where he had taught since 1970, and became Professor Emeritus and Honorary President of the Steadward Centre.
Honours and Awards
- Alberta Sports Hall of Fame (1984)
- King Clancy Award for Outstanding Contribution to Canadians with Disabilities (1995)
- Officer, Order of Canada (1999)
- Member, International Olympic Committee (2000)
- Honorary President, International Paralympic Committee (2001)
- International Paralympic Order (2001)
- Terry Fox Hall of Fame (2002)
- Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal (2002)
- Honorary Life Member, Canadian Olympic Committee (2003)
- Edmontonian of the Century (2004)
- Albertan of the Century in Sport (2005)
- Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame (2007)
- International Olympic Order (2010)
- President’s Award, Canadian Sport Tourism Alliance (2010)
- Alberta Order of Excellence (2010)
- Companion, Order of Canada (2020)