Paralympic history began in 1948 at a hospital for war veterans in Stoke Mandeville, located 60 kilometres north of London. German neurologist Sir Ludwig Guttman was looking for a way to help his paraplegic patients, all World War II veterans, rehabilitate more quickly. His specialised unit was made up Royal Air Force pilots with spinal cord injuries, who all needed to use wheelchairs. Dr Guttman organised sporting events as the Olympic Games took place in London.
Sixteen veterans in wheelchairs faced off in archery and netball competitions, the latter sport already practised by American returning soldiers; by organising these competitions, Dr Guttman had unknowingly created a new sporting movement. He said, “until then, the problem was hopeless, because we had not only to save the life of these paraplegic or quadriplegic men, women and children but also give them back their dignity and make them happy and respected citizens” (source: the significance of Sport in the Rehabilitation of the Disabled, International Congress, 1956).
The first International Stoke Mandeville Games were held in 1952, when a team of veterans from the Netherlands competed alongside the British teams. From then on, the Games were held every year.
In 1954, the International Stoke Mandeville Games continued to develop, involving 14 countries. Most of the participants, who were all paraplegic, came from hospitals or rehabilitation centres whose medical directors had followed Stoke Mandeville’s example by including sport in their programmes.
The fourth International Stoke Mandeville Games took place in 1955 with 18 countries and 200 competitors, all paraplegic.
The ninth International Stoke Mandeville Games, considered the first Paralympic Games,* took place from 18 to 25 September 1960 in Rome, six days after the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games. Five thousand people attended the opening ceremony at the Acqua Acetosa Stadium. Twenty‑three nations took part, sending 400 athletes — all in wheelchairs — who competed in eight sports: para athletics, wheelchair basketball, para swimming, para table tennis, para archery, snooker, dartchery (a combination of darts and archery) and wheelchair fencing.
In 1964, the Paralympic Games took place in Tokyo, like the Olympic Games, from 3 to 12 November. Twenty‑one countries and 375 athletes took part. Para powerlifting was introduced to the programme, as was wheelchair racing in the form of a 60‑m dash. Specialised sports wheelchairs did not yet exist. The athletes therefore used everyday wheelchairs, which weighed a minimum of 15 kilos. The first specialised — although still homemade — wheelchairs did not arrive until the beginning of the 1980s. Today’s wheelchairs have a distinctive shape with a third wheel at the front and are made of aluminium with carbon wheels. They weigh around 7 kilos — half the weight of those first used for wheelchair racing.
For technical reasons, in 1968 the Paralympic Games did not take place in Mexico, like the Olympic Games, but in Tel Aviv. They ran from 4 to 13 November, marking the 20th anniversary of Israel. The event drew 750 athletes, competing for 29 countries. The wheelchair basketball event for women was introduced, as well as a standout event of the Paralympic Games today: the 100‑m wheelchair race.
In 1972, the Paralympic Games were held from 2 to 11 August in Heidelberg (Germany), ahead of the Olympic Games in Munich. The event drew 984 participants, all in wheelchairs, from 43 countries. During these Games, amputees campaigned for the right to compete. This was also the first year that heads of delegations and trainers met to discuss the rules in force in each event. They decided to create subcommittees for each sport within the Stoke Mandeville Games Organising Committee. This decision gave each discipline greater independence to develop and opened the door to the future classification system of disabilities in each sport.
The fifth Paralympic Games took place in Toronto, Canada from 3 to 11 August 1976, while the Olympic Games took place in Montreal. They drew 1,657 athletes, including just 253 women, representing 40 countries. For the first time, wheel chair athletes were not the only ones allowed to participate, and 261 amputees and 187 athletes with a visual impairment competed. A young Canadian named Arnie Boldt, who was just 18 years old, made a triumphant debut for amputees at the Games. An above the leg amputee, he delivered a stunning performance, clearing 1.86 metres in the high jump. Boldt was honoured at the closing ceremony as the most outstanding athlete of the Games.
This year also saw goalball, a sport played by athletes with a visual impairment, make its debut in the programme, along with the new wheelchair racing distances of 200 m, 400 m, 800 m and 1500 m and shooting. These Games also marked significant progress in terms of media coverage and were broadcast on Canadian television every day.
The first Winter Paralympic Games were held that same year in Örnsköldsvik, Sweden.
In 1980, the Paralympic Games took place from 21 to 5 July in Arnhem, Netherlands while the Olympic Games were held in Moscow, then‑USSR. The event drew 1,973 athletes from 43 countries, including 125 athletes with cerebral palsy who were given the right to participate for the first time. Sitting volleyball, practised solely by amputees, also made its debut in the official programme. The host country, the Netherlands, won the Games.
The Paralympic Games took place in two locations in 1984: in New York from 16 to 30 June, for the sports practised standing, and at Stoke Mandeville from 22 July to 1 August for wheelchair sports. A total of 2,900 athletes took part, representing 45 countries.
Amputee athletes competing (standing and in wheelchairs) were divided into nine categories, while athletes with cerebral palsy were divided into eight, athletes with visual impairments into three and other disabilities into six. France excelled in the prestigious wheelchair basketball event, defeating the Netherlands at the final 68-61.
In 1988,the Paralympic Games were held at the same site as the Olympic Games for the first time in Seoul, South Korea. They were held two weeks after the Olympic Games (15‑24 October), with 3,057 athletes from 60 countries participating. A number of Olympic officials were recruited and specially trained in the Paralympics in order to carry out their roles at both Games. One French athlete in particular stood out — Mustapha Badid, who won the 1,500‑m race demonstration event featured at the Olympic Games. He also won the 200‑m, 5000‑m and marathon events at the Paralympic Games. Another unforgettable performance came from Dennis Oehler, who became the first leg amputee to run 100 metres in under 12 seconds; he did it in 11.73 seconds.
22 September 1989
The International Paralympic Committee was founded.
In March and April 1992, the towns of Tignes and Albertville in France hosted the fifth Winter Paralympic Games which, for the first time, took place at the same site as the Winter Olympic Games.
The Summer Paralympic Games were held in Barcelona from 3 to 14 September of that same year, drawing 2,999 athletes from 83 countries. The official programme included 15 sports, including wheelchair tennis in its Paralympic debut. A total of 1.5 million people tuned in to watch the Games on television. Notably, almost half of the 2,999 athletes involved competed in the athletics and swimming events. The programme comprised 487 events, and 279 new world records were set. For example, Swiss wheelchair athlete Heinz Frei set a new record by completing the marathon in just 1 hour and 30 minutes. The other success story of the Games was Ajibola Adeoye, an arm amputee from Nigeria, who won the 100‑m sprint in 10.72 seconds and the 200‑m in 21.83 seconds.
In 1996, the 10th Summer Paralympic Games took place in Atlanta (United States) from 16 to 25 August, with 3,259 athletes from 104 countries competing. For the first time, 56 athletes with intellectual impairments were able to take part alongside athletes with physical and visual impairments, competing in the athletics and swimming events.
In 2000, the 11th Summer Paralympic Games took place in Sydney from 18 to 29 October, drawing 3,879 athletes from 123 countries. The Olympic and Paralympic Organising Committees shared resources, so site managers and other officials were in charge of both Games. The programme included 18 sports: para archery, para athletics, boccia, para cycling, para equestrian, goalball, para judo, para powerlifting, sailing, football 7‑a-side (for athletes with motor disabilities), shooting para sport, sitting volleyball, para swimming, para table tennis, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair fencing, wheelchair rugby and wheelchair tennis. Women took part in the para powerlifting competitions for the first time, and wheelchair rugby made its debut in the programme with a historic final, won 32-31 by the USA.
With 1.2 million entry tickets sold and 300 million television viewers, over 100 countries watched the Games. The Spanish basketball team was found to have cheated at the Sydney Paralympic Games; as a result, athletes with intellectual impairments were then excluded from the programme of future Games, as the system for assessing their disabilities needed reform.
19 June 2001
On 19 June 2001, the IOC and the IPC signed an agreement guaranteeing and protecting the organisation of the Paralympic Games and ensuring that, from the Games in Beijing in 2008, the Paralympic Games would always be held shortly after the Olympic Games and use the same sporting venues, facilities and athletes’ village, and that entry fees and travel costs would be covered to the same extent. From then on, every future host city chosen would therefore organise both the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
In 2004, the 12th Summer Paralympic Games took place in Athens from 17 to 28 September; 3,808 athletes from 135 countries took part. It was the first Paralympic Games for 17 of those countries. It was also the first year that the Olympic and Paralympic Games had a shared organising committee. Records were broken in terms of media coverage were broken, with 50 international channels and 1,103 media outlets covering the events. At the closing ceremony the Agitos, the symbol of the Paralympic movement, were revealed in their current form for the first time.
Brazil won the first blind football tournament, a sport that was introduced to the official programme for the first time along with the handcycling event, while para judo and sitting volleyball were opened up to women.
The Beijing Paralympic Games of 2008 were held from 6 to 17 September, with 146 countries and 3,951 athletes participating. Para rowing was added to the official programme for the first time, bringing the number of sports to 20. Media coverage continued to increase, with 5,800 accredited journalists covering the event, which was broadcast in 80 countries to a total of 3.8 billion television viewers.
In 2012, the London Paralympic Games ran from 29 August to 9 September, with 164 countries competing. Spectators filled stadiums to see the Paralympics come home to Britain, and 2.7 million tickets sold — a new record. The event inspired unprecedented excitement from the public and enjoyed greater media coverage than ever before. The mascot of the Paralympic Games was named Mandeville as a tribute to the original Games. The 4,000-athlete milestone was reached for the first time, with 4,237 competing, and it was also the year that events for athletes with intellectual impairments were reintroduced.
In his closing speech, the IPC President Sir Philip Craven described the London Paralympic Games as the “greatest Paralympic Games ever” and said they had “truly come home and found their pathway to the future here in London.”
British broadcaster Channel 4, which held the broadcasting rights at the time, showed over 150 hours of live footage, achieving a record audience of 39.9 million people — 69% of the population of Great Britain.
In 2016, the Paralympic Games landed in South America for the first time for their 15th edition, which ran in Rio from 7 to 18 September. A total of 4,328 athletes from 160 countries took part and two new sports were added to the programme: canoeing (straight line course) and the triathlon. This brought the number of Paralympic sports to 22. The Games were once more dominated by China, who took home 239 medals, including 107 gold, followed by Great Britain, Ukraine, the USA and Australia. These Games were the most heavily broadcast in history with television, radio and online coverage in 154 countries.
*The term “Paralympic Games” was only officially used and approved by the IOC from the Games in 1984. From 1960 to 1980, they were officially known as the “International Stoke Mandeville Games”.