What Are The Paralympics?

A Brief History of The Paralympics

The Olympics span thousands of years' worth of history with origins in Olympia, Greece, where the first Olympic Games took place. Originally, these Games were exclusive, welcoming only Greek male athletes to compete in running, long jump, shot put, javelin, boxing, equestrian, and pankration, or unarmed combat. While you'll see some of the same sports and Greek traditions incorporated in the Games today, the modern-day athletic competition has grown to be more inclusive, welcoming athletes from around the globe, including those with disabilities as part of the Paralympics

Originally called the Stoke Mandeville Games, the first Paralympic Games took place in 1948, four years after the British Government requested a spinal injury center be opened to help veterans recover from injuries sustained during World War II. The center was opened in 1944 by Dr. Ludwig Guttman, complete with a sports rehabilitation program that would become the Paralympic Games' origins. On July 29, 1948 - the day of the Olympic opening ceremonies - Ludwig organized the first adaptive sports competition, where 16 injured servicemen and women participated in adaptive archery.

In 1960, the Stoke Mandeville Games became what we know today as the Paralympic Games. Like its Olympic counterpart, the Paralympics is an athletic competition bringing hundreds of athletes with disabilities from across the globe together to compete in adaptive sports.

Sports in the Paralympics

The Paralympics consist of 28 sports: 22 in the Summer, and six in the Winter.

Summer Paralympic sports include:

  • Archery
  • Badminton
  • Boccia
  • ParaCanoe
  • Cycling
  • Equestrian
  • Goalball
  • Judo
  • Powerlifting
  • Rowing
  • Shooting

Winter Paralympic sports include:

  • Alpine Skiing
  • Nordic Skiing
  • Sled Hockey
  • Snowboarding
  • Wheelchair Curling

You’ll find most of these sports in the Olympic Games too, but two sports are specific to the Paralympics: Boccia and Goalball.

  • Boccia: Originally developed for athletes with cerebral palsy, boccia is now played by athletes with various disabilities affecting motor skills. Boccia tests an athlete’s accuracy, strategy, and control, as players throw, kick or use a ramp to propel leather balls as close as possible to a white target ball, or "jack."

  • Goalball: Designed for visually impaired athletes, teams of three aim to score goals by rolling a ball with bells inside it into the opponent's net. Players defend their goal using sound cues from the ball, blocking opponents’ shots with their body. The sport requires strong spatial awareness and sensory skills.

Popular Paralympic Sports

Since more sports are offered during the Summer Paralympics with more athletes participating, the most popular Paralympic sports tend to be those played in the Summer including:

  • Wheelchair Basketball: Widely considered to be the most popular Paralympic sport, wheelchair basketball is played on the same size court, with hoops at the same height as standing players. Wheelchair basketball athletes play the game in specialized wheelchairs and follow specific rules when it comes to dribbling the basketball.

  • Wheelchair Rugby: Unlike Olympic Rugby, Paralympic rugby athletes use a modified ball, moving the ball across the playing field using only their hands instead of their feet. Initially known as “murderball” due to the sport’s aggressive nature, athletes and spectators alike are often drawn to the sights and sounds of wheelchairs crashing - a behavior encouraged in wheelchair rugby.

  • Paralympic Track and Field: If you watch Paralympic Track and Field, you’ll see athletes with all kinds of disabilities. For example, some athletes use a mobility aid, like a racing wheelchair, to compete. Athletes who are blind or visually impaired may use a sighted guide - a person who runs alongside them relaying verbal information about the runner’s surroundings. Other athletes have mobility disabilities, but they may not need a mobility aid, so they’ll simply compete running.

Disability Category Definitions

The categories under which athletes can compete are strict. These categories remain the same for both the Summer Paralympics and the Winter Paralympics. 

There are six categories defined as follows:

  • Amputee athletes who have either a total or partial loss of one of their limbs

  • Athletes who suffer from cerebral palsy or athletes that have non-progressive brain damage such as having experienced a stroke, brain injury, or cerebral palsy itself 

  • Athletes who use a wheelchair due to a spinal cord injury or another disability 

  • Athletes who have a visual impairment which can be anything from partial impairment or total blindness 

  • Athletes that have an intellectual disability that creates significant impairment in their ability to function intellectually The sixth category covers athletes that don't specifically fall under one of the above five. These are for athletes who have multiple sclerosis, dwarfism, or even congenital deformities

There is no limit to what sports these players can participate in, which can be anything from biathlons to skiing to archery and even cycling.

Classification in Paralympic Sports

Unlike the Olympics, the Paralympics use a classification system to ensure fair competition, applying to most of the individual and team sports. In individual events, athletes are grouped by similar levels of impairment, focusing on how their disabilities impact their athletic ability. For team sports, each athlete is assigned a point value based on their physical functioning. The total point values of all members playing at one time are added and must not exceed a predetermined number. This classification system ensures one athlete or team does not have an unfair advantage over the other.

2024 Paris Paralympics

The 2024 Paralymppics will be held in Paris starting on August 28. Nearly 50 athletes have already qualified, with trials for sports like para archery and swimming taking place closer to the Games. Throughout the competition, you may see familiar faces - para track and field athlete Tatyana McFadden and wheelchair basketball player Steve Serio - both gold medalists of previous Games, will compete in the 2024 Paralympics.

Adaptive Sports

While you’ll see many sports in the Olympics and Paralympics, there are a few more adaptive sports that have yet to be included in the Games. Wheelchair lacrosse, wheelchair golf, and power soccer are all adaptive sports people with disabilities can take part in recreationally. You can learn more about adaptive sports and the Paralympics in our related articles below or check out the accessible living section of our article library.

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