Although athletes with disabilities have competed in organized sporting events at least as far back as 1888, in Berlin, Germany, having a venue that would accommodate athletes with all disabilities in a worldwide competition is a more recent idea.
The Paralympic Games of today cover 10 impairment types, among them paralysis, amputation, blindness, short stature, and intellectual disability. As we know, disability does not mean inability. Indeed, the vision of the Paralympics is “To enable Para athletes to achieve sporting excellence and inspire and excite the world.”
In ancient and modern times, athletes with all disabilities had been competing in the regular Olympic Games long before there were the Paralympics. In 1904 at the Saint Louis Summer Olympics, George Eyser, a German-American gymnast with an artificial leg, won six medals in men’s gymnastics. And Károly Takács, a Hungarian sports shooter who lost his right arm, in won a gold medal in each of the 1948 London and 1952 Helsinki Summer Olympics by shooting left-handed. Lis Hartel, a Danish equestrian, contracted polio at 23, leaving her paralyzed below the knees. Though she accepted her disability, she refused to accept the discouragement of people around her. She won a silver medal in 1952 in dressage; she went on to win another silver four years later, in 1956 at the Melbourne Summer Olympics.
The first organized international athletic competition for athletes with disabilities was in 1948. The pioneer behind this important event was Ludwig Guttman, a neurologist who specialized in spinal cord injuries, fled Nazi Germany just before World War II and was able to establish a new practice at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in England.
After the war, to help the paralyzed veterans of his newly adopted nation, he established the International Wheelchair Games, which took place the same time as the regular Olympic Games in London. In 1952, Dr. Guttman opened the competition to Dutch veterans, making it an international event.
Bring on the Paralympic Games!
The first actual Paralympic Games, a competition also open to athletes who were not war veterans, took place at the 1960 Rome Summer Olympics, and since then, these games have taken place during the same year as the regular summer Olympic Games. The 1976 Montréal Summer Olympics included athletes with disabilities other than needing a wheelchair. In 1988, the Summer Paralympics were held in the same city (Seoul) and used the facilities as the regular Olympic Games; in 1992, this was extended to the Winter Paralympics (Albertville, France). The first Winter Paralympic Games took place in 1976, in Örnsköldsvik, Sweden.
The Paralympics, 2016
When these games started, “Paralympic” was originally a combination of “paraplegic” (as the first athletes were those with spinal injuries) and “Olympics.” As athletes with other disabilities participated, the “Para” was said to be from the Greek word for “beside” or “alongside,” as in parallel. With that, the vision of the International Paralympic Committee is ‘to enable Para athletes to achieve sporting excellence and inspire and excite the world.” This year, at the 2016 Rio Summer Paralympics, more than 4,000 athletes from 170 member nations are competing, September 7 through 18; let’s cheer these extraordinary athletes on!