During the first Paralympic Games in Rome in 1960, 400 athletes with spinal cord injuries from 21 countries competed. In Sydney, Australia, in 2000, 127 countries sent 3843 elite athletes with a variety of disabilities. In the Beijing 2008 games 3951 athletes from 147 countries competed. These included athletes with spinal cord injuries, visual impairment, cerebral palsy, limb amputations, les autres (disabilities that do not fit in the other categories) and those with mental disabilities. The athletes' results in several instances compared very favourably with achievements at the Olympic Games.
The Paralympic athletes are subject to the same anti-doping laws as Olympic athletes. The International Paralympic Committee Anti-Doping Code was formally adopted in 2004. However, the first official anti-doping testing was performed at the 1988 Seoul Paralympics, although some tests had been performed on wheelchair athletes during the 1984 Paralympics in Great Britain. Anti-doping laws were enacted to support fair play in elite athletics.
Canada's renowned wheelchair racer, Jeff Adams, tested positive for cocaine in 2006 and was suspended from participating in the Games. However, he was exonerated after a long legal battle by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and was able to participate in the 2008 Beijing games. Adams delivered incredible performances but was eliminated in the opening heats after a crash.
The Beijing 2008 games had several doping scandals. Weightlifting athletes from the Ukraine, Mali and Pakistan were expelled from the Paralympics after testing positive for banned substances. A German wheelchair basketball player was also expelled for a positive drug test. Over 1100 tests for banned substances were performed, and almost 900 athletes were tested at the Beijing games. This was a significant increase from the Athens games, where fewer than 700 banned-substances tests were performed.
There has been some debate about new technological devices used by Paralympic athletes. South African Oscar Pistorius, also called "Blade Runner" due to his "flex feet" prosthetics, gave astonishing performances at the Beijing 2008 games. Pistorius does not have legs beneath the knees. The carbon fibre and titanium prostheses are light weight and provide strength and flexibility, and his exceptional racing performances caused some debate about the meaning of "disability" in elite sport. His abilities generated discussion on his potential to compete with Olympic athletes. Pistorius did compete in qualifying meets, but his results were slower than the set times for entrance to the competition.
Research into different materials has led to wheelchairs constructed of titanium and aircraft aluminium. The reduction in the weight and bulk of the chairs helps improve the performance of wheelchair athletes. Research to improve the aerodynamics of racing wheelchairs and the racer's position during a race is also ongoing.
The accessibility of new technological devices raises issues of fairness in competition. Athletes in richer countries are more likely to be able to afford new technology than athletes from poorer countries.
There is also increasing debate about the purpose of making a distinction between "able" and "disabled" athletes, with some advocating looking beyond a disability to the actual individual athletic performance. The fact of individuals actually participating in elite sports despite the discomfort of a prosthetic or an inability to see, for example, is demonstrative of the spirit of excellence in athletics that Paralympians represent.
History of the Paralympics - 1948-60
The Paralympic movement towards competitive sports for individuals with disabilities began in the United Kingdom at the Stoke Mandeville Spinal Injuries Unit during World War II. In 1944, Sir Ludwig Guttmann, a neurosurgeon, looked for ways to integrate the ex-soldiers in his care back into society. He realized that sports could work wonders in motivating them to exercise.
The first team sport at Stoke Mandeville was wheelchair polo, followed by basketball. Archery competition led to the first Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralysed, held on 28 July 1948, with 16 competitors.
Guttmann envisioned international games: Olympics for athletes with disabilities. The Stoke Mandeville Games were held yearly after 1948, and became international in 1952 with the addition of a Dutch team.
In 1960 in Rome, immediately after the Olympics, Guttmann watched as 300 athletes with disabilities entered the Olympic Stadium. From this has sprung the Paralympic Games, second in size only to the Olympics.
Sir Ludwig Guttmann died in 1980, having seen the influence of his Games touch thousands of people worldwide. His vision inspires all who strive for his dream: the full integration of those with disabilities into mainstream society.
The Early Paralympic Movement - 1960-1988
Between 1952 and 1970 the international scope of the Stoke Mandeville Games grew but still followed a medical model with a rehabilitation mentality. Meanwhile, other disabled sport organizations developed around the world.
The first National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament was held in the United States in 1949, followed by the National Wheelchair Games in 1957. While the Stoke Mandeville Games limited participants to those with spinal injuries, the American organizations welcomed competitors with any type of lower body impairment.
More sports and competitions, as well as other disabilities, were added. The International Games for the Disabled in Tokyo in 1964 saw the first wheelchair races, which were held as demonstration events. In 1975 the Gold Cup Wheelchair Basketball World Championships were established.
Rehabilitation - Recreation - Competition - Elite Sport
Winter sports for the disabled were developing in Europe. Games were held in 1976 in Örnsköldsvik, Sweden, for athletes who were blind, amputees, and people with spinal cord injuries. Later that year in Toronto Summer Games competitors included the blind, amputees and les autres athletes for the first time. In 1980, Arnhem, Netherlands, saw athletes with cerebral palsy in Paralympic competition for the first time. The 1980 Winter Games were held in Geilo, Norway. By this time there were several disabled sport organizations involved in organizing the Games.
In 1984 the Paralympic Summer Games were split owing to problems with funding and organization. Two Games were held: one at Stoke Mandeville for athletes with spinal cord injuries, and one at New York for amputees, the blind and those with cerebral palsy. Winter Games were held in Innsbruck, Austria, that same year.
The 1988 Seoul Paralympics showed the effects of improved organization and the shift in the disabled sport community from sport as rehabilitation, to sport as recreation, to elite sport. These Games are considered the first of the modern Paralympic era.
The International Paralympic Committee
The International Paralympic Committee was founded on 21 September 1989. Robert STEADWARD, a Canadian expert in the field of disabled sport, was elected president, and would lead the disabled sport movement into a new age. While federations continue to administer their individual sport disability groups, the IPC organizes all world championships, Paralympic trials and Games. On 8 December 2001, Philip Craven, from Great Britain, succeeded Dr Steadward as president.
The IPC official red, blue, and green logo evolved from the five-teardrop Seoul Paralympic logo, which was based on the symbol of yin and yang. The 3 teardrops match the 3 words of the IPC motto: "Mind, Body, Spirit."
Jeff Adams is Canada's most prominent male wheelchair racer, and Chantal Petitclerc the most outstanding female wheelchair racer. A five-time Paralympian, Adams trains full time and participates in as many as 20 competitions a year. In Sydney, Adams won 5 medals: 2 gold, in the 500 m and 800 m, silver in the 400 m, and bronze in both the 5000 m and the 4x100 m relay. Adams has held world records in the 400 m and 4x100 m, and Canadian records in 4 events (400 m, 800 m, 1500 m, 4x400 m). Jeff Adams had planned to race in the 1500 m event in 2008, but was disqualified in the opening heats due to being involved in a crash.
Montréal's Chantal Petitclerc won 5 gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics in the 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1500 metre wheelchair racing events, setting world records in all but the 100 and 200 m races. Petitclerc also is a five-time Paralympian, having participated at Beijing, Athens, Sydney, Atlanta and Barcelona in wheelchair racing, winning a total of 21 Paralympic medals.
Ice Sledge Hockey
Ice Sledge Racing
Classification of Athletes
In order to provide a level playing field, where athletes can compete fairly with their peers, each Paralympic athlete is classified according to disability. This of course is done in able-bodied sport as well: a middleweight boxer is not put in the ring with a heavyweight boxer.
In the past, these divisions were based solely on medical classification: spinal cord injury athletes did not compete against amputee athletes, for example. The next method was functional classification: all athletes in the same class would have similar levels of function in such areas as range of motion, coordination and balance. Given the fact that Paralympians include athletes with cerebral palsy, blindness, spinal cord injury or disease, and dwarfism, as well as les autres (disabilities that don't fit in the other categories) and those who are amputees, comparing levels of function can be very complicated.
Presently, classification is moving towards individual functional classification by sport. The classifier observes the athlete doing the sport; all athletes with similar capability to actually perform the sport are included in the same class.
The T51 to 58 categories are for athletes with spinal cord injuries and amputations, and T11 to 13 are for varying types of visual impairments. Athletes with cerebral palsy compete in T32 to 38 categories depending on the level of cerebral palsy. The T32 to 34 events are for athletes competing in wheelchairs, and T35 to 38 events for ambulant athletes (meaning that the athletes can walk or run). The T40 to 46 categories are for athletes classified as les autres and those with amputations.
Summer Games - The Sophisticated Games
The Seoul games in 1988, run with military precision, were truly world class. Athletes performed in front of full-capacity, highly appreciative crowds. Many of the officials had honed their skills at the Olympic Games. Athletes were housed in a specially constructed village designed to be used after the Games by individuals with disabilities. They competed in the same venues as Olympic athletes. Official transport was efficient and prompt, although the monumental amount of vehicular traffic caused some incidents. The opening ceremonies were spectacular: skydivers, jets flying past, thousands of children, a tae kwon do demonstration and 700 wheelchair dancers.
But Seoul had its problems too; due to a shortage of housing, only 3000 athletes were able to attend the Games. There were also some technical issues with officiating. In addition, the organizers eliminated many events involving severely disabled athletes. This decision was a symptom of the change these Games represented: the Paralympic athlete must be the elite athlete.
The Paralympics were held in Barcelona, Spain in 1992. Because the organizing committee was closely linked to the Olympic committee, standards in all areas were very high. Elite athletes were given elite treatment, including a brand-new housing complex right on the Mediterranean Sea. They competed to packed houses, with spectators lining up for hours to get the best seats.
The opening ceremonies were a marvel of art and organization, from the Picasso-inspired masks given to spectators, to the Gothic cathedral backdrop, to the flamenco dancers and horsemen, all reflecting the Spanish culture and traditions. Daily television coverage ensured that all Spain and much of Europe shared in the excitement.
Times and distances in events also included in the Olympics were very close, such as Ajibola Adeoye of Nigeria, a single-arm amputee, running the 100 m in 10.72 seconds. Tony Volpentest, using two prostheses, ran 100 m in 11.63 seconds, only 1.77 slower than Carl Lewis's record of 9.86. The Canadian women's wheelchair basketball team, led by star Chantal Benoit, who scored 18 points, fought a glorious match, defeating the US 35-26.
The Atlanta games in 1996 saw 3 major milestones. First, more athletes from more countries set more world records than ever before. These included athletes with mental disabilities. A second milestone was the involvement of worldwide and national sponsors using the Paralympics as an investment opportunity. The third major achievement was the involvement of a broadcaster providing television feed around the world. Most of the coverage was on American athletes.
Atlanta had problems, which were partly a result of the enormous numbers of participants. Attendance was poor and the venues and athletes' village were left in very poor shape after the Olympics. Although athletes and officials praised Atlanta's thousands of volunteers, there were also issues with transportation and food service. Atlanta did see stellar athletic achievement: 269 world records were set.
Superb organization, enthusiastic participation and record-breaking performance made Sydney's 2000 games a splendid summer Paralympics. Facilities and services offered to Paralympians equalled those that Olympic athletes enjoyed. Organizers sold more than double the number of tickets sold in Atlanta. Over 2000 media representatives were on-site to cover the Games. New for these Games was web casting, with the public being able to watch Paralympic competitions on the Internet.
Host country Australia won 149 medals, while Canada won 96. The Canadian swim team won an incredible 23 gold, 15 silver and 10 bronze medals. The Canadians set 20 world and 23 Paralympic records. Calgary swimmer Jessica Sloan had 6 gold medal world record performances.
Athens 2004 was even bigger than Sydney, and included many "firsts" for the Paralympics. A record-breaking 3806 athletes from 136 countries participated. For the first time women competed in volleyball (sitting), and judo. These Games were the most popular ever, with the most television coverage - over 300 hours - and the most tickets sold - over 800 000.
China emerged as a Paralympic power, with 141 medals, while Canada won 72, including 28 gold. Canadian swimmers won 40 medals, more than half the Canadian team's total. Swimmers Benoit Huot and Kirby Cote, and wheelchair racer Chantal Petitclerc each won 5 gold medals. Swimmer Stephanie Dixon won a total of 8 medals.
The Canadian men's basketball team repeated their Sydney gold-medal performance, this time defeating the powerhouse Australian team 70-53 in the final.
The 2008 Summer Games were held in Beijing, China, with spectacular opening and closing ceremonies. In the 2008 Games Canada hoped to be in the top 5 medal standings, but it was China that captured first place, followed in order by Great Britain, United States, Australia and Ukraine. Canada's Paralympic athletes performed in 50 medal winning events at wheelchair racing, discus, marathon and other running events, shot put and long jump. In overall medal standings Canadian athletes won 10th place.
At the 2008 Games. Canada's Paralympic athletes achieved phenomenal results and demonstrated that they were international elite athletes. Canadians truly stood out in wheelchair racing and Chantal Petitclerc won 5 gold medals in racing events, setting new world records in 3 events. She retired after the 2008 Beijing games, ending a remarkable career.
The Paralympic Hall of Fame opened in 2006 and 3 athletes from Germany, Finland and Sweden were inducted. The 2008 Games saw 5 athletes inducted to the hall of fame; the athletes were citizens of Denmark, Germany, 2 athletes from Australia, and 1 from Canada. The Canadian, André Viger, participated in 5 Paralympic games and won 3 gold medals in 10 000-metre wheelchair racing events. He was named the athlete of the year in Québec in 1986 and won the Maurice RICHARD Award from the Saint-Jean-Baptiste society.
The 2012 Summer Paralympic Games in London, England received more press coverage than any previous Paralympic event. With the participation of 4200 athletes from 160 nations (the biggest sports games of persons with disabilities of all time) and following on the heels of the London Olympic Games, the 2012 Paralympics drew the attention of viewers from around the world, who followed the event through the reportage of over 6000 media representatives. 16 countries sent athletes for the first time to compete in the Paralympics: These were Antigua and Barbuda, Brunei, Cameroon, Comoros, Djibouti, Congo, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, North Korea, San Marino, Solomon Islands, Trinidad and Tobago and the US Virgin Islands.
Canada brought a total of 145 athletes to compete in 15 sports in London and, although expectations were high, our 2012 paralympians were unable to achieve a stated objective of finishing within the top eight position. With a total of seven gold medals, Canada's final count was well behind the 19 won at the previous games in Beijing. Canadian athletes also earned 15 silver and nine bronze, ending up in twentieth place ranking overall, prompting Canadian Paralympic Committee chief executive officer Henry Storgaard to state that "a Paralympic medal is more valuable and harder to achieve. The world has changed for Paralympic sport over the last two weeks and Canada needs to change with it."
Canada could, however, be proud of its athletes, in particular, our swim team, which won 16 medals, including a pair of gold. The men's wheelchair basketball team also won gold medals, as did wheelchair sprinter Michelle Stilwell and road cyclist Robbi Weldon. Montreal swimmer Benoit Huot, who managed to win a complete set of gold, silver and bronze and set a world record in the 200 individual medley relay, was chosen Canada's flag bearer for the closing ceremonies.
Winter Games - The Family Games
While the Summer Games are huge, the Winter Games are still small, intimate events with a family feel. Another major difference is that people with a sport rather than a medical background started the Winter Paralympics, and as a result these Games have always been organized according to athletes' physical ability to perform the sport rather than categorization by medical diagnosis.
Winter sports for the disabled present obvious difficulties: cold, ice and snow aggravate problems of transport and equipment. But these Games still doubled in size between 1976 and 1994. While Sweden hosted 15 countries in '76, Norway hosted 31 in '94. The thrill of team events such as ice sledge hockey, as well as the development in training regimens and equipment, will ensure that this growth continues.
The enthusiasm and commitment of the Norwegian people was demonstrated in many different ways. The king and queen of Norway were in attendance almost daily. Media coverage of the Games was unprecedented for a winter event. Norwegian television prepared daily reports. Twenty-seven television stations from 17 countries bought this footage. Opening ceremonies highlights included wheelchair dancing, Norwegian folk dancing and performers from around the world.
Sledge hockey, the Paralympic version of ice hockey, was a new event in Lillehammer, and spectators loved it. Another first: the Norwegian team included a female goalie. Norwegians won 64 medals in this most successful Winter Paralympics, with Canada earning 8.
The opening ceremonies were conducted with much pageantry; His Imperial Highness the Crown Prince of Japan declared the Games open. The friendly and helpful people of Nagano gave the athletes a warm welcome.
The Canadian sledge hockey team beat Sweden, the defending champions, in a thrilling performance, unfortunately losing to Norway in the finals. The Canadian Paralympic team achieved its best performance ever, winning 15 medals, equalling its Olympic performance, while the first-place country, Norway, won 40.
Salt Lake City, 2002
With each Paralympic Games, interest in and awareness of disabled sport continues to grow as elite athletes push the limits of their bodies and their sports. The 2012 Paralympic Summer Games were scheduled for London, directly following the 2012 Summer Olympics in that city. The 2014 Paralympic Winter Games will take place in Sochi, Russia.
Author CYNTHIA J. PETERSON Revised: PATRICIA G. BAILEY
Links to Other Sites
This Hockey Canada website offers the latest news and a brief video about the sport of sledge hockey.
Rick Hansen Foundation
The website for the Rick Hansen Foundation. Features an overview of research into spinal cord injury, an illustrated profile of Rick Hansen, and much more.
Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC)
All the latest news about CPC athletic programs for people with a disability. Be sure to check out the CPC Hall of Fame.