The Paralympic Games are organised in parallel with the Olympic Games today, with Winter and Summer versions that are governed by the International Paralympic Committee held almost immediately after the Winter and Summer Olympics. The same cities host both events and the same facilities are used. Other sporting events for differently-abled athletes are also recognised by the International Olympic Committee, including the Special Olympics World Games for those with intellectual disabilities and the Deaflympics for the hearing-impaired.
In the early days of the modern Olympic Games, disabled athletes simply competed against their able-bodied counterparts. In spite of this uneven playing field some medals were won, but the first organised athletic day for disabled athletes was still a welcome change. This took place on the 1948 London Summer Olympics’ opening day. A competition for British World War II veterans with spinal cord injuries was organised, called the 1948 International Wheelchair Games. The idea was to create an elite sports event equivalent to the Olympic Games, and the effort was pioneered by Dr. Ludwig Guttman who had fled to Britain from Nazi Germany. More veterans from other places took place in later Wheelchair Games.
The first official Paralympic Games, open to athletes other than war veterans, was held in Rome in 1960. At first they continued to be focused on those whose impairments left them wheelchair-bound, but in 1976 the disability classification system was substantially expanded. This brought in more athletes and more events. The tradition of using the same host cities and the same venues and facilities was started is Seoul in 1992.
Today Paralympians compete in a wide variety of different disciplines, and a classification system to encompass them all as well as the different categories in which they compete has been developed. There are 10 eligible impairment types: impaired passive range of movement, impaired muscle power, limb deficiency, short stature, leg length deficiency, ataxia, hypertonia, visual impairment, athetosis and intellectual impairment. There are further classification systems within these categories as to the level of disability an athlete experiences, which vary from sport to sport.
The Summer, Canadian casino games and Winter Paralympic Games programmes consist of 22 and 5 sports respectively. The International Paralympic Committee has governance over several of these, while other international Sports Federations deal with certain sports that are specific to particular disability groups. These federations include the International Blind Sports Federation, the Cerebral Palsy International Sports and Recreations Society and the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports Federation.
The Paralympic Games were intended to emphasise competitors’ abilities, not their disabilities, and to allow every individual to realise their physical potential. A central idea to the Olympics and all of its associated events is that unity and strong values can be spread through sport, and both the International Olympic and Paralympic Committees strive to honour this. A great example is the way the same host cities and venues are used for both Games’ events every 4 years. As the Paralympic Games keep growing, including more athletes and more sports, this ideal of equal respect and opportunities seems closer to being realised.