A short history of the Paralympics


Prior to the Second World War, spinal cord injuries were a death sentence. In 1943, given the number of injuries to both soldiers and civilians, German Ludwig Guttman was assigned as Director of the National Spinal Injuries Unit at the Ministry of Pensions hospital in England, to where the Jewish neurologist had fled.

Guttman revolutionized the physiological and psychological aspects of his patients’ rehabilitation with the introduction of sport, with the goal of rebuilding pride and self-worth as well as to challenge prevailing societal attitudes.

Starting with games such as darts and snookers, Dr Guttman progressed to wheelchair netball, and then to what would prove to be the defining sport, archery.

As well as building upper body strength, archery was a sport in which paraplegics could compete on equal terms with non-disabled peers, giving them a pathway to integration in society once discharged from Guttman’s care.

And so the Paralympics Games as we know them today first took the form of an archery demonstration on July 29, 1948.

By 1949, Dr Guttman’s “Grand Festival of Paraplegic Sport” featured 37 competitors from six spinal units across the country. Flash forward to 1956, 18 nations were represented at the Games, as Guttman’s international dream took hold, including Dartchery, a combination of darts and archery.

As a result, Ludwig Guttman is universally accepted as the founder of the Paralympic movement.

From the outset, Guttman insisted on drawing comparisons between what had been christened the Stoke Mandeville Games and the Olympic Games. It was decided that the 1960 Games would take place in Rome a few weeks after the Olympic Games in the Italian capital. In 1964, Tokyo hosted both the Olympics and Paralympics.

Complications saw the 1968 games held in Israel rather than Mexico City. In 1972, the University of Heidelberg hosted the Games rather than Munich. Toronto was the setting in 1976, Arnhem of the Netherlands in 1980.

Since 1988, the Paralympic Games have been held in the same city as the Summer Olympic Games, with the exception of Madrid in 1992, when the Paralympic Games for the intellectually disabled were hosted in advance of intellectually disabled athletes being included in the Paralympic programme at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

The Winter Paralympic Games, first held in Sweden in 1976, did not sync with the Olympic Games until Tignes-Albertville in 1992.

Studies of the early history of the movement reveal the term “Paralympics” comes from Paraolympics and Paraplegic Olympics. The name first appeared in print in 1953, in the Bucks Advertiser and Aylesbury News.

Starting with the Toronto Games in 1976, competitors have been covered by four impairment groups. Athletes with spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsied athletes, amputees and les autres athletes, and blind and visually impaired athletes.

When the 2016 Games kick off in Rio this September, they will have come a very long way. The Paralympic Games is now the second largest multi-sport festival on earth.

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