August 31, 2012
Now the Olympic Games is over, the focus of the world sporting attention can shift to its sister event, the Paralympics. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, these games are for the physically disabled and run in parallel to the Olympics. The Paralympics are the second biggest global sporting event.
The Paralympics started out as a way of rehabilitating injured soldiers after World War II. The German physician Ludwig Guttmann was working at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in the UK in 1948 and organized the International Wheelchair Games to coincide with the 1948 London Olympic Games.
Originally only a small number of British competitors took part at first, but in 1952 a team of Dutch veterans joined in. These Stoke Mandeville Games became increasingly popular and are the forerunner to the modern Paralympics.
Rome in 1960 was the first Paralympics event that was open to everyone, not just injured veterans. Over the next few years it expanded and became a permanent fixture in the Olympic calendar in Seoul in 1988. Since that time, the Paralympics has started about two weeks after the Olympics and includes nearly as many athletes and countries as the full Olympic Games.
The Paralympics is a full multi-sport event, and features a total of 21 different sports. Many of these are familiar to watches of the Olympics, with sports such as swimming, cycling and athletics. Other sports are adapted to the disabilities of the participants, such as sitting volleyball. The remaining sports are specific only to disabled athletes, such as wheelchair rugby (murderball) and goalball.
Many of the sports at the Paralympics run for people with varying degrees of disabilities. The classifications can be complex to understand, but aim to pit people of similar disabilities against each other. Many of the popular events run several times for each classification of athlete.
Before the start of the Games, many of the new athletes have their level of disability checked by a neutral medical panel. This can lead to athletes moving to a new competitive category or even being removed from the games entirely. This might seem unfair to some individuals, but aims to produce a level playing field for all contestants.
In addition to the disabled athletes, some events need able-bodied athletes to help. These are mainly classifications for the blind, such as tandem cycling.
Obviously, disabled athletes are not capable of reaching the high performance levels of the Olympics, but that does not mean that the competition is not fierce. It still requires a world-class performance to be the best in the world in each particular classification.
In some events, the performances of disabled athletes would win medals in any competition. Wheelchair athletes can complete the marathon 30 minutes quicker than able-bodied runners and some of the cyclists are recording times that would win medals in the Olympics or World Championships.
Other events are completely different to anything that you would watch anywhere else. Wheelchair rugby is so intense that the wheelchairs need armor plating to prevent damage to the players. Goalball is another sport that you will not find anywhere else and makes a great spectacle.
The Armed Forces
Originally the Paralympics started as a way to rehabilitate service people injured in World War 2. The military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have left many injured members of the armed forces and some of these are now training to compete in disability sports. This is a great way to get over the devastating injuries that many of these former soldiers suffered in combat.
Most of the athletes that compete at the Paralympics would not be able to qualify to represent their country at the Olympic Games. Oscar Pistorius, or the Blade Runner, is the exception to that rule and was the first amputee to qualify for the full games in his favorite event – the 400m. He finished last in the semi-final of the individual event in the 2012 Olympics and his team came eighth in the final of the 4x400m relay. As probably the most famous athlete in the Paralympics, Pistorius is helping to promote the Games to a wider audience.
In the Paralympics, Pistorius will compete in the T44 category (single below knee amputee) in the 100m, 200m and 400m and 4x100m relay. This will allow him to defend the individual titles he won in Beijing. He was also the T44 200m champion in Athens and a bronze medalist in the 100m.
The competitors in the Paralympics are some of the most inspiring sports people you will ever see. All of them have overcome difficulties to get to the Games that would break most people, and deserve the recognition they get from the watching public. In fact, many countries do not fund disability sport to the same levels as Olympic sports making it harder for the athletes to train properly.
The slogan of the London Paralympics is “Inspire a Generation”, and the performances seen throughout the games will certainly inspire anyone that watches. Disability sports are finally getting the level of respect that the athletes deserve Why not catch some of the action over the next couple of weeks and see if it can inspire you?