The Paralympic Games are an international competition for elite athletes with a disability. The name comes from para, as in parallel or equal. Like the Olympics, the Paralympic Games take place every two years, alternating between summer and winter sports. The country hosting the Olympic Games also hosts the Paralympics.

Classification of Athletes

Paralympic athletes include those with spinal cord injuries, visual impairment, cerebral palsy, limb amputations, les autres (disabilities that do not fit in the other categories) and those with intellectual disabilities. In order to provide a level playing field, where athletes can compete fairly with their peers, each Paralympic athlete is classified according to the impact of their disability on athletic performance.

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.

Para-athletes are now classified according to the impact of their impairment on athletic performance. The International Federation (governing body) of each sport develops its own classification system and assigns classifiers who evaluate and assign athletes to specific “sport classes.”


Summer Sports






Sitting Volleyball




Table Tennis





Football 5-a-side

Wheelchair Basketball

Football 7-a-side

Wheelchair Dance Sport


Wheelchair Fencing


Wheelchair Rugby


Wheelchair Tennis


Winter Sports

Alpine Skiing

Ice Sledge Hockey


Wheelchair Curling

Cross-country Skiing

Technological Innovation

There has been some debate about new technological devices used by Paralympic athletes. For example, South African Oscar Pistorius, also called "Blade Runner" due to his "flex feet" prosthetics, gave astonishing performances at the Beijing 2008 Summer Games. Pistorius does not have legs beneath the knees. The carbon fibre and titanium prostheses are light weight, and provide strength and flexibility. His exceptional racing performances caused some debate about the meaning of "disability" in elite sport. Pistorious’ abilities generated discussion on his potential to compete with Olympic athletes. Pistorius did compete in Olympic qualifying meets, but his results were slower than the set times for entrance to the competition.

The advances in prosthetic devices and in wheelchair technology have contributed to significant growth in para-sport, including the creation of new sports and events, increased participation and improved performance. However, this technology is expensive, and is out of reach for many athletes — particularly those in developing countries. Running prostheses, for example, cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Even in Canada, the cost of assistive technologies can be prohibitive. For example, when wheelchair racer Chantal Petitclerc first started competing, she could not afford a racing wheelchair, which at the time cost around $4,000. With only $400, she had a chair made from the parts of three second-hand wheelchairs.

However, financial assistance is available for amateur and elite para-athletes in Canada, particularly through the Canadian Paralympic Committee’s Para-Equipment Fund and Jumpstart Fund. These funds provide grants to local clubs (e.g., Kiwanis, Lions Clubs), sporting associations (e.g., Athletics Canada, Rowing Canada) and provincial organizations (e.g., Parasport Ontario) to support the purchase of para-equipment and the development of para-sport programs.


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.

Early History of the Paralympic Movement (1948–60)

The movement towards competitive sports for individuals with disabilities began in the United Kingdom at the Stoke Mandeville Spinal Injuries Unit during the Second World War. 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.

The first competition for wheelchair athletes was an archery competition held on 28 July 1948. Known as the Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralysed, 16 injured servicemen and women competed in the Games. The Stoke Mandeville Games were held yearly after 1948, and became international in 1952 with the addition of a Dutch team.

Guttmann envisioned international games: Olympics for athletes with disabilities. In 1960 in Rome, immediately after the Olympics, Guttmann watched as 400 athletes with disabilities entered the Olympic Stadium. The 1960 Games are now considered the first Paralympic Games.

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.

Growth of the Paralympic Movement (1960–88)

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 parasport 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 to the Games in 1964. The International Games for the Disabled in Tokyo, Japan, in 1964 (the second Paralympic Games) saw the first wheelchair races, which were held as demonstration events. In 1975 the Gold Cup Wheelchair Basketball World Championships were established.

At the same time, winter sports for the disabled were developing in Europe. The first Winter 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, Ontario, Summer Games competitors included the blind, amputees and les autres athletes for the first time.

At the 1980 Summer Games in Arnhem, the Netherlands, athletes with cerebral palsy competed for the first time. The 1980 Winter Games were held in Geilo, Norway. By this time there were several parasport organizations involved in organizing the Games.

In 1984, owing to problems with funding and organization, the Paralympic Summer Games were split. Two Games were held: one in Stoke Mandeville for athletes with spinal cord injuries and one in New York for amputees, the blind and those with cerebral palsy. Winter Games were held in Innsbruck, Austria, the same year. Innsbruck also hosted the 1988 Paralympic Winter Games.

The 1988 Seoul Paralympics showed the effects of improved organization and the shift in the parasport 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 (IPC) was founded on 21 September 1989. Dr. Robert Steadward, a Canadian expert in the field of parasport, was elected president, and would lead the parasport movement into a new age. On 8 December 2001, Philip Craven, from Great Britain, succeeded Dr. Steadward as president.

The official red, blue and green IPC logo evolved from the five-teardrop Seoul Paralympic logo, which was based on the symbol of yin and yang. The three teardrops match the three words of the IPC motto: "Mind, Body, Spirit."

While federations continue to administer their individual sport disability groups, the IPC organizes all world championships, Paralympic trials, and Games.

Summer Games Since 1988

Seoul, South Korea (1988)

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 3,000 athletes were able to attend the Games. There were also some technical issues with officiating. In addition, the organizers eliminated many events involving athletes with severe disabilities. This decision was a symptom of the change these Games represented: the Paralympic athlete must be the elite athlete.

Barcelona, Spain (1992)

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 Spanish culture and traditions. Daily television coverage ensured that all Spain and much of Europe shared in the excitement.

Highlights included 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 United States 35–26.

Atlanta, Georgia (1996)

The Atlanta games in 1996 saw three major milestones. First, more athletes from more countries set more world records than ever before. These included athletes with intellectual disabilities. A second milestone was the involvement of worldwide and national sponsors who saw the Paralympics as an investment opportunity. The third major change was the involvement of a broadcaster that provided a television feed around the world (although most of the coverage focused on American athletes).

Atlanta did see stellar athletic achievement: 269 world records were set at the Games. However, there were also problems. Attendance was poor, and the venues and athletes' village had been 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.

Sydney, Australia (2000)

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 2,000 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 six gold medal world record performances. Wheelchair racer Jeff Adams won five medals: two 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.

Athens, Greece (2004)

Athens 2004 was even bigger than Sydney, and included many "firsts" for the Paralympics. A record-breaking 3,806 athletes from 136 countries participated. For the first time women competed in volleyball (sitting) and judo. These Games were the most popular to that point, 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 Benoît Huot and Kirby Cote, and wheelchair racer Chantal Petitclerc each won five gold medals. Swimmer Stephanie Dixon won a total of eight 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.

Beijing, China (2008)

The 2008 Summer Games were held in Beijing, China, with spectacular opening and closing ceremonies. Canada hoped to finish in the top five medal standings, but placed seventh overall. China captured first place, followed in order by Great Britain, the United States, Australia and Ukraine. Canada's Paralympic athletes won 50 medals in events including wheelchair racing, discus, marathon and other running events, shot put, and long jump.

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 — Chantal Petitclerc won five gold medals in racing events, setting new world records in three events. She retired after the 2008 Beijing games, ending a remarkable career.

London, England (2012)

The 2012 Paralympic Summer Games in London, England, received more press coverage than any previous Paralympic event. With the participation of over 4,200 athletes from 164 nations (the biggest Games to that point) 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 6,000 media representatives. Sixteen countries sent athletes for the first time to compete in the Paralympics: 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, the team was unable to achieve its stated objective of finishing within the top eight positions. With a total of seven gold medals, Canada's final gold medal count was well behind the 19 won at the previous games in Beijing. Canadian athletes also earned 15 silver and nine bronze medals, ending up in 20th place 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 very proud of its athletes. The swim team was particularly successful, winning 16 medals, including a pair of gold. The men's wheelchair basketball team also won gold, as did wheelchair sprinter Michelle Stilwell and road cyclist Robbi Weldon. Montréal swimmer Benoît Huot, who won a complete set of gold, silver and bronze medals, and set a world record in the 200 m individual medley relay, was chosen Canada's flag bearer for the closing ceremonies.

Summer Games Medal Table






Rome, Italy


Tokyo, Japan


Tel Aviv, Israel




Heidelberg, Germany




Toronto, Ontario




Arnhem, the Netherlands




New York/Stoke Mandeville




Seoul, South Korea




Barcelona, Spain




Atlanta, Georgia




Sydney, Australia




Athens, Greece




Beijing, China




London, England



Winter Games Since 1992

Tignes-Albertville, France (1992)

The 1992 Winter Games in Tignes-Albertville, France, included only skiing events; the ice sports of sledge racing and hockey were not included as no facilities for these sports were available. Four hundred and seventy-five athletes from 24 countries competed. Athletes with intellectual disabilities participated in the Winter Paralympics for the first time, competing in demonstration events in alpine and cross-country skiing. The United States was the overall winner with 45 medals while Canada (which placed ninth) won 12 medals in total.

Lillehammer, Norway (1994)

Lillehammer was the first Paralympic Winter Games to be organized by the International Paralympic Committee, which formed in 1989. Much of Lillehammer's resounding success was due to cooperation in planning: the Olympic and Paralympic Organizing Committees shared the same president.

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 the winter event. Norwegian television prepared daily reports and 27 television stations from 17 countries bought the footage. The highlights of the opening ceremonies included wheelchair dancing, Norwegian folk dancing and performers from around the world.

Sledge hockey, the Paralympic version of ice hockey, was a new event at the Lillehammer Games, and spectators loved it. Another first: the Norwegian team included a female goalie. Norwegians won 64 medals at the Games, finishing first in the overall standings, while Canada finished in 14th place with 8 medals.

Nagano, Japan (1998)

Nagano hosted the first Paralympic Winter Games held outside Europe. These Winter Games were the largest yet. Thanks to much publicity, more than 150,000 tickets were sold. Tickets for sledge hockey were especially popular. Approximately 20 television stations from 15 countries broadcast feature stories from the Games.

The opening ceremonies were conducted with much pageantry; His Imperial Highness the Crown Prince of Japan declared the Games open.

The Canadian Paralympic team achieved its best performance ever, winning 15 medals, equalling its medal count at the 1998 Olympic Winter Games, while the first-place country, Norway, won 40. The Canadian sledge hockey team beat Sweden, the defending champions, in a thrilling performance, but lost to Norway in the finals.

Salt Lake City, Utah (2002)

Organizers estimated that 210,000 spectators attended these Paralympics. Ten events sold out, including the opening and closing ceremonies. Again volunteers played a key role in the success of the Games. Television coverage was higher than expected because several networks broadcast specials on the Paralympics. The United States had the most medals with 43, and Canada earned 15: six gold medals, four silver and five bronze. Canada's 15 medals were mainly in the alpine skiing events, with Calgary skier Karolina Wisniewska winning four medals.

Torino, Italy (2006)

At the 2006 Paralympic Winter Games in Torino, Italy, Canada won 13 medals — five gold, three silver and five bronze — and placed sixth in the overall medal standings. Gold medals were amassed by Lauren Woolstencroft in skiing, Brian McKeever in cross-country skiing and the Canadian team in wheelchair curling, a sport that made its Paralympic debut in 2006. The highlight of the Games for many was Canada's gold medal win in sledge hockey. After a difficult time in round robin play, the team qualified for the gold medal round, in which they defeated Norway 3–0.

Vancouver, British Columbia (2010)

The 2010 Paralympic Games were held in Vancouver and Whistler, British Columbia. Though Toronto had hosted a summer version of the event in 1976, it was the first time in history that the Winter Paralympic Games had been held in Canada. Canadians improved on their 2006 showing and excelled in the medal standings, winning 10 gold, 5 silver and 4 bronze medals, and placing third in the medal standings behind Germany and Russia.

Several firsts were achieved during these Games. Brian McKeever had the distinction of being named to both the Olympic and Paralympic teams for cross-country skiing, though he did not compete in the former. Paralympic downhill skier Viviane Forest won five medals and became the first Canadian woman to win gold at both the Summer and Winter Games. (She had previously won gold medals in goalball in both 2000 and 2004.) Lauren Woolstencroft set a record as the Canadian Winter Paralympian with the most gold medals in a single Games, when she won five in the downhill events.

Sochi, Russia (2014)

The Canadian Paralympic Team won seven gold medals (16 medals overall) at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, finishing third in the standings. This was no small feat for a team that had lost a number of veteran athletes to retirement (including Lauren Woolstencroft, who won five gold medals at the Vancouver Games alone). Canada’s impressive standings at Sochi 2014 were the result of strong performances by veterans and rookies alike.

Cross-country skier Brian McKeever won three gold medals at Sochi: the men’s 1 km sprint, 10 km, and 20 km races (visually impaired division). This brought McKeever’s total to 10 gold medals and two silver medals in four Paralympic Winter Games. Teammate Chris Klebl won gold in the men’s 10 km cross-country race (sitting division), while Mark Arendz won the silver medal in the men’s 7.5 km biathlon (standing) and the bronze medal in the 12.5 km biathlon.

Josh Dueck, Canadian flag-bearer at the closing ceremonies, captured the gold in the men’s super-combined and silver in the men’s downhill event (sitting). Paralympic rookie Caleb Brousseau won the bronze medal in the men’s Super-G (sitting) early in the Games. Teammate Kimberly Joines — who had competed at Torino in 2006 but who missed the 2010 Olympics due to an injury —won bronze in the women’s slalom (sitting), her first career Paralympic medal.

One of the standout performances at Sochi came from the youngest member of the Canadian Paralympic team, the 16-year-old Mac Marcoux. Early in the Games, Marcoux won two bronze medals — in the men’s Downhill and men’s Super-G (visually impaired) — and on the second-last day of competition he won gold in the men’s Giant Slalom. His teammate, Chris Williamson, took the bronze in the men’s slalom (visually impaired).

The Canadian curling team, skipped by the genial Jim Armstrong, defended their successful gold medal from the Vancouver Games. This was the third Paralympic gold medal in curling for Sonja Gaudet, and the second for Ina Forrest. For teammates Mark Ideson and Dennis Thiessen, it was their first time representing Canada at the Games. The sledge hockey team defeated Norway to take the bronze.

Winter Games Medal Table






Örnsköldsvik, Sweden




Geilo, Norway




Innsbruck, Austria




Innsbruck, Austria




Tignes-Albertville, France




Lillehammer, Norway




Nagano, Japan




Salt Lake City, Utah




Torino, Italy




Vancouver, British Columbia




Sochi, Russia



Increasing Participation and Popularity

Since the first Paralympic Games were held in Rome in 1960, participation and media attention have increased significantly. In 1960, 400 athletes with spinal cord injuries from 23 countries competed. In 2000, 127 countries sent 3,843 elite athletes with a variety of disabilities to the Games in Sydney, Australia. At the Beijing 2008 Summer Games, 3,951 athletes from 147 countries competed. At the London 2012 Summer Games, 4,237 athletes from 164 countries were watched by record crowds: 2.7 million bought tickets to the Games, while 3.8 billion watched the events on television.

The Paralympic Winter Games, though considerably smaller, have also increased in terms of participation and popularity. In fact, they doubled in size between 1976 and 1994: while Sweden hosted 16 countries in 1976, Norway hosted 31 countries in 1994. At the Vancouver Paralympics of 2010, over 500 athletes from 44 countries competed in the Games; they were watched by 230,000 ticket holders and 1.6 billion television viewers. Four years later, over 2 billion viewers tuned in to watch the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, with almost 550 athletes representing 45 countries.