British paralympic athlete David Weir

A Brief Overview and History of the Paralympic Games

The Paralympic Games or the Paralympics is an international multi-sporting event. Here, athletes with various types of disabilities come together from all around the globe and compete in different sports. Like the Olympics, the Paralympic Games also have two editions; the summer and winter Paralympics. Each is held every four years, but two years after the other.

The 16th Summer Paralympics officially began yesterday, 24th August 2021 in Tokyo, just two weeks after the closing ceremony of the 2020 Summer Olympics in the same city. What began with just 16 people competing in just one sport in 1948, today has over 4000 athletes competing in 28 sports. This marks the largest number of participating athletes and sports to date.

The Paralympic Games have served as an inspiration to people all around the world as highly motivated athletes succeed despite all odds. With that in mind, in this post, we discover exactly how the Paralympic Games came into existence, what the games represent and the future of the international event.

How did the Paralympic Games begin?

While the history of the Olympic Games dates all the way back to ancient Greece, the beginnings of the Paralympic Games are comparatively more recent.

It all started in the English town some 60 km northwest of London, known as Stoke Mandeville. A year before the Second World War ended, in 1944, the British Government had requested German neurologist Dr Ludwig Guttmann to open a unit for spinal cord injuries at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital for war veterans. His patients were mostly pilots of the Royal Air Force who became paraplegic after sustaining injuries in their spinal cords. The aftermath of the horrific war not only physically injured the war veterans but mentally too. They were so terribly haunted by the events of the war that many developed grave conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

black and white portrait of Dr. Ludwig Guttmann
Dr. Ludwig Guttmann. Image Credit: Eurochannel

The usual method of recovery, which was bed rest, didn’t help Dr Guttmann’s patients recover. He brainstormed different methods to rapidly restore the health of the injured veterans. Finally, the Head of Spinal Injuries Unit thought of starting to gently move the patients regularly. Seeing improvements in their health, he started rehabilitation programs to train them enough to play basic ball games. Soon, the patients, bound to their wheelchairs, developed playing games like netball, basketball, darts and even archery. Impressively, their health improved drastically.

The use of sports proved to be an effective method of rehabilitation for the veterans of war.

The first Stoke Mandeville Games

Then in 1948, inspired by the Olympic Games, which were being held in London that year, Dr Guttmann thought of organizing a sporting event for these patients. Thus, the first Stoke Mandeville Games were held in 1948 with only 14 men and 2 women participating. Together they competed in archery, which was the only sport in the games.

Little did anyone know that the Stoke Mandeville Games would one day turn into the international Paralympic Games, the second-largest sporting event in the world.

athletes in wheelchairs
Athletes at the Stoke Mandeville Games. Image Credit: Paralympic Heritage via Twitter

Dr Guttmann’s approach to treating their maladies more holistically did not simply focus on saving the patients’ lives but also restoring their dignity in society, ensuring that they were treated as respected individuals. This also led to the foundation of the Paralympic Movement, which will be discussed below shortly.

International Stoke Mandeville Games

The Stoke Mandeville Games went international when, in 1952, a group of Dutch war veterans also participated in the games, competing with the British team. From there on, it was known as the International Stoke Mandeville Games and the games were held annually.

The number of participants went from 16 to 60 in a matter of two years. More sports such as netball and javelin throwing were included by then. Additionally, more countries from lands as far away as Asia and even Australia began participating.

Before the Paralympic Games or even the Stoke Mandeville Games, disabled athletes would represent their countries directly in the Olympic Games. The first athlete with a disability to compete in the Olympics was German-American gymnast George Ludwig Eyser, who won 6 medals representing the USA in the 1904 Olympics hosted in St. Louis, Missouri.

Since the first International Stoke Mandeville Games, there have been four years that highlight major developments that shaped the Paralympic Games into what they are today.

9th Annual International Stoke Mandeville Games in Rome, 1960

The first major highlight in the development of the Paralympic Games was in 1960. It was when the first Paralympic Games, similar to as we know it, began. The 9th Annual International Stoke Mandeville Games were held just six days after the Summer Olympics, in the same place as the Summer Olympics, which was Rome.

This was also the first time that disabled athletes who weren’t war veterans were allowed to participate in the games. This year saw 400 athletes participating from 23 countries, competing in eight sports.

Additionally, since 1960, the games have been taking place every four years instead of being held annually.

The Introduction of the Winter Paralympics

Since the 9th Annual International Stoke Mandeville Games held in Rome, the participation of athletes has witnessed massive growth.

Up until 1976, only athletes in wheelchairs could participate in these games but, in 196, the categories of the types of disabilities expanded. Now amputees and visually impaired athletes can also participate.

With the introduction of new disability categories, the meaning of the word ‘Paralympic’ changed. The term Paralympic was originally coined by mixing two words, Olympic and paraplegic, as it was initially related to patients with spinal cord injuries. Once athletes with other disabilities began participating in the games, the meaning of ‘Paralympic’ was no longer inclusive of these athletes. As a result, the meaning of the word was altered. In the new meaning, the ‘Para’ in Paralympics comes from the Greek preposition, ‘beside’. Meaning, that these games are held in parallel with the Olympic Games. This meaning is still followed today.

Winter Paralympic athlete skiing
1976 Winter Paralympic athlete. Image Credit: Paralympic

Also in the same year, the first-ever Paralympic Winter Games were organized in Örnsköldsvik, Sweden. Just like the Summer Paralympics, these games would also take place every four years and would have an opening and closing ceremony. That year, the winter Paralympics had 196 athletes participating in only two sports; alpine skiing and cross country skiing. These events marked the second major highlight in the development of the Paralympic Games.

Seoul Paralympic Games 1988

The next major highlight was the Seoul Paralympic Games in 1988. For the first time, both the Summer Olympics and Paralympics were organized in the same country.

The 1988 Seoul Paralympic Games took place shortly after the Summer Olympic Games in the same city, using the same facilities. This format was followed in 1992, 1996 and 2000 until the International Paralympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee officially agreed to formally follow this format in 2001.

Also in 1988, the term Paralympic was officially used for the first time. The 1988 games are often known as the beginning of modern-day Paralympics.

International Paralympic Committee and The Paralympic Movement

The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) was founded in 1989 in Dusseldorf, Germany. The IPC is a non-profit organization that acts as the governing body of the Paralympic Games.

Evidently, they are responsible for the Paralympic Games and the athletes. But their objective is to manage and ensure the continuity of the Paralympic Movement.

The Paralympic Movement is an international sporting movement for the disabled which envisions more inclusivity of persons with disabilities through sports.

The movement believes that sports can bring change in the attitudes that people have towards persons with disabilities. Improve mobility for those with disabilities and allow them to have equal opportunities in all domains such as work, education, sports and healthcare. It is using the global platform to dismantle the various stigmas surrounding persons with disabilities.

1992 Tignes-Albertville Winter Paralympics

In the 1992 Winter Paralympic Games in France, for the first time, the same venue and facilities from the Winter Olympics were used for the Paralympics.

Furthermore, since 1992, the Paralympic Games are held 2 weeks after each Olympic Game, in the same venue, using the same facilities, tracks and arenas.

In fact, in 2001, the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee signed an agreement that made sure that from 2012, the city in charge of hosting the Olympic Games would also have to host the Paralympic Games.

In the present day, the Paralympic Games bring together more than 4,000 participants from around the globe. The categories of disability to qualify as Paralympic athletes have also expanded. Today, athletes with a vast range of impairments, such as Impaired Muscle Power, Impaired Passive Range of Movement, Limb Deficiency, Leg Length Difference, Short Stature, Hypertonia, Ataxia, Athetosis, Impaired vision, and Intellectual Impairments can take part in the games.

paralympic tennis player dylan alcott
Dylan Alcott, tennis player. Image Credit: Ubitennis

Moreover, the list of games has also become longer since the first Stoke Mandeville Games. Today the athletes can play a total of 28 games in the Summer and Winter Paralympic Games combined. 22 at the Summer Games and 6 at the Winter Games. The sports are Archery, Athletics, Badminton, Boccia, Canoe, Cycling, Equestrian, Football 5-a-side, Goalball, Judo, Powerlifting, Rowing, Shooting Para sport, Sitting volleyball, Swimming, Table tennis, Taekwondo, Triathlon, Wheelchair basketball, Wheelchair Fencing, Wheelchair rugby, Wheelchair tennis, Alpine skiing, Biathlon, Cross-country skiing, Para ice hockey, Snowboard and Wheelchair curling.

Why are the Paralympic Games Important?

The Paralympic Games have a crucial role to play in the development of humanity as a whole. Both, persons with disabilities and able-bodied people.

First and foremost, it provides an elite and large scale platform for disabled athletes to show their talents and abilities. It changes the perception of many who still doubt the potential of disabled people, not only in sports but in other fields too.

The games inspire people with disabilities around the globe and all those around the world who also have to face all odds to live their lives and gain respect in society. It motivates people by showing the excellence of athletes, assuring them that disabilities shouldn’t limit one to achieving their goals or fulfilling their wishes. It is a medium for social change. They encourage others to face their challenges and overcome both physical and mental barriers.

They also raise awareness of disabilities and make persons with impairments more visible. The more people are aware, the more comfortable they’ll be to have conversations about disability, be more hospitable towards them and make them feel included in society in their ongoing fight for equal treatment and dismantling stigmas.

The broadcasting of the games has proved to have improved the attitude of people regarding disabled people. People were more comfortable openly talking about disabilities, which is ultimately a step towards any kind of change.

With each edition of the Paralympic Games, the athletes improve and win more medals than before, gaining them the appreciation and respect that they deserve.

The Agitos Symbol

red, blue, green agitos symbol
Agitos symbol. Image Credit: Metro UK

Secondly, much like the Olympic Games, the Paralympic Games are also a way to foster peace and unity among humankind. This, along with the values of the Paralympic Movement, is translated into the symbol of the Paralympic Games, which was designed in 2003. The symbol takes the form of three Agitos. The Agitos are three crescents in colours; red, blue and green encircling a central point. The colours represent the colours of most flags in the world and the shaped circling a common point symbolizes the fact that athletes gather from all around the world in the spirit of competition. After all, sports have always been regarded as an activity that keeps the mind and body fit and brings people together. It also shows the athletes coming together to promote harmony, friendship and solidarity.

Furthermore, Agito in Latin means ‘I move’, which acknowledges the athletes’ ability to achieve by moving forward.

What will the Paralympic Games look like in the future?

While the future is uncertain, it is safe to say that there will only be advancements made in the Paralympic Games. With technological developments, perhaps more athletes with an even more diverse range of disabilities that aren’t in the present categories can participate in the games.

Innovations in Sports

The Paralympic Games have created a necessity for the development of gadgets that could aid athletes by making sports more accessible to them.

For instance, earlier, athletes would only use traditional heavy wheelchairs to play sports, but now, some wheelchairs weigh half the original weight, are flexible and specially designed for the position that the athlete plays. In swimming, for example, visually impaired swimmers have to depend on their senses in water and the verbal feedback that they get from their coaches while training. So, scientists have developed a device that is worn on the wrist and elbow that produces sounds and vibrations to notify the swimmer whenever their movements are correctly made. This way, they can train optimally.

Another popular and very useful invention is the flex foot cheetah which are prosthetic human feet that aid amputee athletes in running and jumping.

athlete wearing prosthetic feet
Flex foot cheetah. Image Credit: Ubergizmo

It is ultimately the athlete who makes all the effort. The devices simply aid their mobility.

Innovations in sports technology and equipment, particularly for persons with disabilities, would allow potential athletes to choose from a wide range of sports. And, the Games could see the addition of new sports. In the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, for example, Badminton and Taekwondo were two sports added to the event.

This phenomenon engages designers, innovators and engineers from around the world to contribute. Students especially get the chance to hone their creative skills and with programmes such as the Sports Innovation Challenge or the Open Innovation Challenge, they get the right opportunity. While the athletes get the right equipment.

Towards a Hopeful Future

Lastly, sports unites, educates and inspires communities with different backgrounds, stories and cultures. The future should hope for Paralympic athletes to be more than athletes. For them to be treated equally in society. To find equal opportunities in fields other than sports. To utilize their abilities and talents. To be established citizens in society who aren’t limited by their disability.

For others to create a culture that reduces ignorance surrounding disabilities. The idea is to be more inclusive.


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