The origins of the Paralympic Games can be traced back to the end of the Second World War, and more specifically to academic refugee Dr. Ludwig Guttman of Germany.
Although athletes with disabilities had competed at the Olympic Games in the past – George Eyser stands out as a prominent example in 1904 – Dr. Guttman’s International Wheelchair Games on the opening day of the 1948 Summer Olympics in London made history. British war veterans with spinal cord injuries took part, and four years later the competition was repeated to include Dutch and Israeli athletes, making the competition international – a positive step towards Guttman’s ambition of creating a sporting contest for disabled athletes to mirror the Olympics.
In the 1960s, the Paralympic Games were formally brought within the same year as their counterparts. In Rome, over 400 athletes from 23 countries contested the 1960 games, which were also incidentally the first open to any participant, where previously the athletes had been formed exclusively of war veterans.
Sixteen years later in Toronto, Canada, athletes with disabilities that did not require a wheelchair were also invited to compete, an inclusion that expanded the number of athletes to 1,600 from 40 nations.
In 1988, the Paralympics were hosted for the first time in Seoul, another milestone as it marked the first time the event had been held directly after the Summer Olympic Games – this would then be repeated at the next three events before being formally ratified between the International Paralympic Committee and International Olympic Committee in 2001, and the format continues to the present day.
A Paralympic Winter Games was introduced in 1976 in Sweden, and followed the format of being celebrated every four years. After the 1992 games, the Winter Paralympics and Winter Olympics were both celebrated on even-numbered years that didn’t clash with the Summer Games. The latter games broke ground as the first time the Winter Paralympics had used the same facilities as the Winter Olympics.
What began as a group of war veterans has since grown exponentially into a global sporting event comprising thousands of athletes from a wide range of nations, with the celebration rightly focusing on the athletic achievements of athletes in each discipline, rather than their disabilities.
The IPC’s vision is to ‘enable Paralympic athletes to achieve sporting excellence and to inspire and excite the world’, a promise on which it emphatically delivers to an increasingly high standard and praise with each passing event.
It is also possible for some athletes without a disability to compete at the Games – for those who have impaired vision, sight guides assist during competition and the pairing are considered a team, marking another fantastic example of the Games’ inclusivity.
The 2000 Paralympic Games marked an increase in international coverage for the event, with television coverage expanding to distribute to as many markets across the world as possible. In the UK, it is a legal requirement for the Games to be shown by a free-to-air broadcaster, as with the Olympics – the so-called ‘crown jewels’ sporting events rule.
The next historic chapter in the story of the Paralympic Games will take place in Tokyo in two years’ time.