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A Brief History of the Paralympics

Friday August 12th, 2016
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A Brief History of the Paralympics

A Brief History of the Paralympics

Friday August 12th, 2016 / 0 Comments 0 Comments

In a few weeks, following the Games of the XXXI Olympiad, the world will once again gather in Rio de Janiero to celebrate the globe’s diversity and compete in feats of athleticism. However, it won’t be exactly the same. This event will shake up the common and unfounded misconception that disability means inability. From September 7 to September 18, 4,000 athletes with disabilities from 176 nations will face off in 23 sports consisting of 528 events for the fifteenth Summer Paralympic Games. Chances are you have heard about the Paralympics, but don’t know much about them, so here is a brief history of the event and what we may look forward to see next month.

The Origins

Father of the Paralympics, Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, talks with spinal cord patients (photo credit: Team USA Paralympics, YouTube screenshot)

Following World War II, Jewish-German neurologist Dr. Ludwig Guttmann was working with injured and disabled veterans- specifically those dealing with spinal trauma- at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in England. During his time there, he realized that physical activity was important in his patients’ rehabilitation, both for regenerating physical strength as well as boosting self-esteem. He began organizing games and competitive activities for these service members in order to boost their physical fitness and it served to remind them that their disabilities did not sentence them to a meaningless life. On July 28, 1948, the same day as the opening ceremony for the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, Dr. Guttmann helped launch the Stoke-Mandeville Games for the Paralyzed, which would later become the Paralympic Games.

The Early Years of the Official Paralympic Games

The first international Paralympic Games were held in Rome, Italy, immediately following the 1960 Summer Olympics. According to the official website of the Paralympic Movement, they were supported by the Italian Olympic Committee and the Italian Institute for Disabled workers, and featured 23 countries, 400 athletes, 57 medal events and eight sports. The competition, types of events, nations involved and participating athletes would continue to grow every four years and be featured across the globe with increasing popularity in cities such as Tokyo, Tel Aviv, and Toronto. The first Winter Paralympic Games was introduced in 1976, held in Örnsköldsvik, Sweden, and the only two sports to be featured that February were alpine skiing and cross-country skiing. It was not until the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, that the Paralympics began to immediately follow its International Olympic Committee counterpart in the same respective host city. This arrangement continues to this day.

Today: Rio 2016

The 2016 Summer Paralympics is slated to be the biggest and most widely viewed Paralympic games in history, already setting record-numbers for participating athletes (4,000), represented countries (176), sports (23) and events (528). 66 countries from Asia, Africa, Europe, North and South America and Oceania will be broadcasting the games, and can be streamed online at This includes an all-time high 66 hours of coverage in the United States by NBCUniversal. The Paralympics hopes to build upon the success of their London 2012 broadcast, which was screened to an audience of 3.8 billion people in 115 countries.

Sports, Disability and Technology

Germany battles Japan in Wheelchair Rugby at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing photo credit: Jonas Merian, Flickr, CreativeCommons

Germany battles Japan in Wheelchair Rugby at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing (photo credit: Jonas Merian; source: Flickr, CreativeCommons)

This increasing popularity and media availability of the Paralympics can be attributed to a few factors dealing with the rise of sports consumption, the increase of disability awareness and availability of technologies. We are an ever-increasing entertainment-focused planet, and sports are one of the leaders in this culture and its profitable marketplace. Just to put it in perspective, according to last month’s Forbes annual valuation of leading sports franchises, the average NFL franchise is worth nearly $2 billion, a 160% increase from 2004! Leagues, clubs and fan-bases continue to expand across our globalized world- from the traditional powerhouses of European soccer all the way to basketball leagues in China. The Paralympics are a part of that trend and its profitability.

I believe our advancement in Paralympic access is also related to continued awareness of and exposure to people with disabilities. We are living in a world where disability is far more visible in person and in media, and this is a reflection of that. Increasing life-spans, the prioritization of diversity and inclusion, the passing of legislation such as the ADA, and positive portrayal of disability in film and television (i.e. Breaking Bad, Finding Dory, Speechless) have all led to increased humanization and relatability to people with disability, which has broadened the Games’ appeal.

And lastly, broadcasting technology. Some of you may remember back in the day when each home only had one television with 10 channels and broadcasts were available only during specific times. Those days are long gone. Today’s media availability- both in the United States and around the world- continues to expand at a rate few could have possibly imagined. Seriously, how many of you when growing up thought you would one day be able to view a 100-yard dash thousands of miles away, in high-definition, on a flat and cordless monitor the size and weight of a notepad from an airplane 30,000 feet in altitude? Simply put, the technology market has resulted in more cameras capturing the action, more devices to view the content and more networks broadcasting the footage.

A Step in the Right Direction

The Paralympic Games work to change popular misconceptions about people with disabilities by showing that disability does not equate inability. It challenges the misinformed and enlightens the uninformed by showing that people with disabilities are equally capable of amazing feats and utilizes the positive attributes of sport to accomplish that: feats of awesomely absurd athleticism, comradery among teammates, sportsmanship toward opponents, as well as a personal focus on the athletes themselves, which makes them relatable character. We believe the Paralympics can play an enormous role in changing the marginalization of people with disabilities. The next step in that change begins in 26 days. Get ready.


Justin Ellis is the Social Media Coordinator of the Ruderman Family Foundation who was first connected to the issue of disability through his sister, an award-winning special education teacher. Outside the Foundation he is an avid lover of Middle Eastern history and communication psychology.

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