A Brief History of the Paralympic Games

The Paralympic Games is a major global sporting event that happens after the more famous Summer Olympics. Its global reach is growing exponentially, with Rio 2016 registering four times the television ratings (in the United States) over London 2012.

The games have come a long way from their humble beginnings and the emergence of great Paralympians like Jonnie Peacock, the sub-11-seconds blade runner from Great Britain, the future only looks brighter for these wonderful games.

What are they?

Like the Olympics, the Paralympics is a multisport, international event that involves athletes from 176 Paralympics committee member states. The athletes have a range of disabilities, including:

Impaired muscle power (paraplegia, quadriplegia, muscular dystrophy, post-polio syndrome, spina bifida)

Impaired passive range of movement or limb deficiency, such as amputation or dysmelia, leg length difference

  • Short Stature
  • Hypertonia
  • Ataxia
  • Athetosis
  • Vision impairment
  • Intellectual impairment

How they began

In Stoke Mandeville, England, Sir Ludwig Guttmann organized a sporting competition involving World War II veterans who had spinal cord injuries. That was in 1948. Four years later, competitors from Holland joined in the games and the international movement now known as the International Paralympics Committee was born.

The timelines

In 1960, the first organized Olympic-style games were held in Rome, Italy. Sweden hosted the winter version in the same year. In the Rome games, 400 athletes with spinal cord injuries from 23 countries competed. Italy reigned supreme with a total of 80 medals; Great Britain came second with a total of 59.

The Rome games were called the “9th Annual Stoke Mandeville Games” and it was not until 1984 that the term “Paralympic Games” was officially recognized by the International Olympics Committee (IOC). All prior events were retroactively renamed.

Tokyo 1964

In 1964, Tokyo played host to the 13th Stoke Mandeville Games. This was the first time that the summer Paralympics was held in the same city as the Olympics. That didn’t happen again until Seoul 1988 when the committees agreed that hosting cities for the summer Olympics would also host the summer Paralympics.

Many events in the Tokyo games had more than three athletes, indicating growing competition and interest. And athletes were no longer guaranteed medals! There were 19 participating countries, with the United States topping the table with 119 medals.

Wheelchair racing was also added in these games, with a 60-meter dash competition. This sport has grown to become one of the dominant (and most popular) disciplines of the Paralympics, much as the 100-metres is the star of the Olympics.

1968

The 17th Stoke Mandeville Games were held in Tel Aviv, Israel, after Mexico City pulled out, citing difficulties. Mexico City was only able to host the summer Olympic Games.

Women’s wheelchair basketball was added to the games and the wheelchair race was upgraded to a 100-meter dash. The lawn ball sport also debuted at these games.

An impressive 28 nations participated, with the United States coming out on top again with a total of 99 medals. Host nation Israel finished third, with 62 medals.

1972

Held in Heidelberg, West Germany, the 1972 games were the first to allow non-wheelchair-bound athletes to compete in demonstration events. There was a 100-meter sprint for the visually impaired and a goalball demonstration match. However, all other competition remained a wheelchair-only affair.

Host nation West Germany topped the medal table with an impressive 67 medals.

1976

Toronto, Ontario was the first Canadian city to host the Paralympics games, beginning just two days after the closure of the summer Olympics in Montreal.

These games had many firsts.

For the first time, television viewers in Southern Ontario got live relays of the games. Previously restricted to wheelchair-bound athletes only, the Toronto games were the first to allow amputees and visually impaired athletes to compete in track and field disciplines. Wheelchair racing also saw the addition of four new disciplines: 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m.

Global politics would also play havoc with the games as a number of teams boycotted, citing the inclusion of the then-Apartheid South Africa. Canada itself denied visas to the Rhodesian team on political grounds and the Israeli team was housed in an undisclosed hotel due to security concerns.

The United States retook medal supremacy with a record haul of 154 medals.

1980

Arnhem, Holland hosted the summer Paralympics from June 21 to June 30, 1980. The Soviet Union was supposed to host but famously passed, hilariously claiming that no one in the Soviet Union lived with disabilities. The real reason was that the Paralympic sports were not well developed in the Soviet Union.

Apartheid reared its ugly head again as the Dutch Parliament denied the South Africans participation. On the upside, the continued agitation by different stakeholders against the inclusion of South Africa in two consecutive Paralympics put the games into the international spotlight. This led to improved fundraising and the International Fund Sport Disabled being set up to support the Paralympics through the 1980s.

1984

The seventh Paralympics games were the first to be held in two separate countries. Stoke Mandeville hosted the wheelchair events and New York hosted ambulatory and wheelchair athletes, as well as all the other conditions.

Most communist states led by the Soviet Union boycotted the summer Paralympics (as they had the Summer Olympics), though East Germany, China, Hungary, Poland and Yugoslavia all competed.

The United States topped the medal standings once again, with a record-breaking 397 medals.

1988

For the first time in 24 years, the same city – Seoul, South Korea – hosted the summer Olympics and Paralympics. The term “Paralympics” was also officially used for the first time at these games.

The Libyan team came in through unofficial entry procedures and were severely limited in competition. They were not entitled to any medals. The Iranian goalball team was disqualified for refusing to compete against Israel.

The first big logistical nightmare for the organizers was 27 medals erroneously awarded after the first round of the men’s and women’s slalom events.

The United States was still a global leader in Paralympic sport, with 273 medals and first place.

1992

103 countries participated in the 9th Paralympic games in Barcelona, Spain. Wheelchair tennis was added, bringing the total to 560 events covering 15 sporting disciplines. Out of the 1,710 medals awarded, the United States took a total of 175 to top the medal standings.

1996

Atlanta, USA played host to the 1992 summer Paralympics. For the first time in the history of the games, there was mass media coverage and a huge budget – $82 million (USD).

Three demonstration sports were included: racquetball, sailing (medals awarded) and wheelchair rugby (medals awarded).

The United States continued its winning streak with a total of 159 medals.

2000

Sydney, Australia – the first city to host the games outside the Northern Hemisphere – welcomed 3,800 athletes in what was the second largest sporting event ever in Australia.

Fernando Vincente Martin, from the Spanish Federation of Handicapped Sport, caused the biggest controversy in the games for sanctioning an able-bodied basketball team in an intellectually handicapped category in the games. 10 of the team’s 12 players suffered no intellectual challenges. The Spanish team beat Russia’s completely legal team in the final, Martin was found guilty and was suspended from both the IPC and the Spanish Paralympic committee.

Doping was rife in these games with 11 athletes (out of 630) testing positive for banned substances.

With 149 medals, Australia broke the US’s winning streak to top the medal standings.

2004

Athens, Greece – the home of the Olympics – hosted the 2004 games, which saw the inclusion of four new events: five-a-side football for the visually impaired, women’s sitting volleyball, judo and quad-wheelchair tennis.

China topped the standings with 141 medals.

2008

3,941 athletes from 146 countries descended on Beijing, China, for what was to be the greatest Paralympic event ever. 279 world records and 339 Paralympic records were broken in these games. Five new nations competed for the first time and the games had 10 more participating nations than the 2004 Athens edition. The first-timers were Montenegro, Burundi, Haiti, Georgia, and Gabon.

China continued to assert their dominance on Paralympic sport with a whopping 211 medals.

2012

The city of London, UK, hosted their second largest sporting event ever (after the 2012 Summer Olympics) when they played host to 4,302 athletes from 168 member states, shattering the Beijing record. Coming back to the birth country of the Paralympics, the intellectually disabled events, which had been suspended after the Sydney Basketball debacle, were reinstated.

China would top the medal standings for the third time in a row, with 231 medals.

2016

The second city in the Southern Hemisphere to host the games was Rio de Janeiro. It also marked the first time a Latin and Southern American Country hosted the games. Even bigger than London, Rio had 4,342 athletes from 159 nations competing, including two refugee teams.

Russia suffered a blanket ban of all its athletes as the IPC discovered a state-sponsored doping program in the team.

Global interest in the Paralympics games skyrocketed as the Rio games recorded the highest gross television ratings worldwide, with an impressive 400% growth in the United States alone.

However, initial ticket sales were slow until the games were almost underway and funding was a problem. In spite of the difficulties, Brazil put on a great event and China topped the medal standings for the fourth time in a row.

The Paralympics have grown enormously since their humble beginnings as a village sporting event in Stoke Mandeville. Today, the games are a global sporting behemoth commanding impressive figures in attendance, marketing, and media rights. In 2020, the games return to their 1964 host -Tokyo – and the excitement is already building up!