The Paralympic Games are a major international competition for athletes with disabilities. Just like the Olympics, the Paralympics are split into Summer Games and Winter Games that alternate every two years.
Incorporating many of the same activities as Olympic events—including cross-country skiing and a biathlon for the Winter Games and swimming and cycling for the Summer Games—the Paralympics allow athletes to use special equipment that enables them to compete. From the competition’s beginnings, to its classifications, to the impressive feats of Paralympians, we explore eight facts about the Paralympics.
1. The Paralympic movement started in 1948.
Dr. Ludwig Guttmann came up with the concept as a way of encouraging World War II veterans to take up sports as a method of rehabilitation. Dr. Guttmann organized the first wheelchair sports and archery competitions at Stoke Mandeville on the opening day of the Summer Olympics in London.
2. Paralympics is an amalgamation of the Latin term for “next to” and “Olympics.”
The inaugural Paralympic Games took place in 1960 in Rome, where 400 competitors with spinal injuries took part one week after the Summer Olympic Games. The Paralympics was also staged in the same city as the Summer Olympics in 1964. However, they were held as separate events in other cities from 1968 until 1988. Since 1988, the Summer Paralympics have taken place in the same city as the Summer Olympics every four years.
3. Before the Paralympics, athletes with disabilities had to qualify for the Olympics if they wanted to compete.
As a child, American Ray Ewry was warned that he might be paralyzed for life after contracting polio. Despite spending much of his childhood using a wheelchair, Ewry went on to become an extraordinarily successful track and field athlete, competing in the Olympics, where he claimed an astounding eight gold medals in the standing jump event for his country.
4. The Paralympics and the Olympics are two distinct competitions.
The names may sound similar, but the events are entirely separate. Though there have been rumors that the two events might merge, opinions remain split as to the merits of such a move.
While the Olympic Games has five interlocking rings as a logo, the Paralympics logo features the Agitos: three swoops in red, blue and green, representing the Paralympic Games moto, “spirit in motion.”
5. The Paralympics and the Olympics are governed by two separate organizations.
The Paralympic Games are governed by the International Paralympics Committee, while the Olympic Games is organized and overseen by the Olympic Committee.
6. Several sports are exclusive to the Paralympics.
Two prime examples are boccia and goalball.
Although boccia is one of the Paralympics’ least well-known sports, the game is actually played competitively in over 50 countries today. Boccia was originally developed for people with cerebral palsy, but over the years it has been extended to incorporate players with a variety of disabilities that affect motor skills.
At the Paralympics, boccia features some of the Games’ most disabled athletes. Similar to bowls, it takes place on an indoor court, with competitors playing in pairs or teams, with athletes rolling, throwing, or kicking the balls, with the aim of getting them to land closest to the target.
Goalball is a game played on an indoor court with tactile markings by two teams of three athletes who are blind or visually-impaired. Featuring a heavy ball filled with bells, the object of the game is to get the ball into the opposing side’s net, with defenders using their bodies to try to halt the ball’s progress.
7. The Paralympics has different disability classifications.
According to the Paralympic website, “To ensure competition is fair and equal, all Paralympic sports have a system in place which ensures that winning is determined by skill, fitness, power, endurance, tactical ability and mental focus, the same factors that account for success in sport for able-bodied athletes.” This means that athletes do not necessarily need to have the same condition in order to compete against one another.
Instead, they are grouped for competition by the degree to which their impairment impacts their ability to participate in the sport. This grouping process is referred to as classification. The International Paralympics Committee imposes a vigorous testing program, enlisting the help of sporting medical professionals to assess individual athletes’ range of movement and function to assign their classification.
For example, Paralympics swimming events incorporate 14 classes, with S1-S10 incorporating individuals with various physical impairments, with lower numbers representing more significant activity limitations. These categories include a wide range of conditions. Classes S11-S13 are reserved for people with visual impairments, while S14 is for people with intellectual disabilities. Accommodations vary by classification.
8. The US Olympic & Paralympic Foundation provides vital funding for Team USA.
Founded in 2013, this 501(c)(3) nonprofit generates critical financing to help American athletes reach their full potential, both within the sporting arena and outside of it. With 100 percent of gifts going directly to athletes, this Colorado-based organization provides high-performance programming to help all US athletes excel on the international mainstage.
The US Olympic & Paralympic Committee is unique from most national Olympic committees in that its programs do not receive federal funding. The US Olympic & Paralympic Foundation therefore fulfils a vital role, helping American athletes to remain competitive with the rest of the world, inspiring the next generation of Team USA at both the Paralympics and Olympics.