Athletes with Intellectual Disabilities and the Paralympics

By Kwon, Eunhye; Block, Martin E. | Palaestra, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Athletes with Intellectual Disabilities and the Paralympics


Kwon, Eunhye, Block, Martin E., Palaestra


After being banned from Paralympic competition due to a cheating scandal at the 2000 Paralympics games in Sydney, Australia, 120 athletes with intellectual disabilities competed in the 2012 Paralympics in three sports: swimming (class S14), athletics (class T/F20), and table tennis (class T11). A new classification system was created and implemented to prevent cheating, and the targeted re-inclusion of athletes with intellectual disabilities into the games was deemed a success by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and the International Federation for Para-Athletes with an Intellectual Disability (INAS).

History of Athletes with Intellectual Disabilities in the Paralympics

The International Sports Federation for Para-athletes with an Intellectual Disability (INAS-FID) was formed in the Netherlands in 1986 to organize and promote sports for athletes with intellectual disabilities. The INAS-FID was formed by a group of people who believed that the needs of athletes with intellectual disabilities, at least those athletes who were dedicated to intense training and elite performance goals, were not being adequately served within Special Olympics International (Matandrea & Czubernat, 2006). The general aims of INAS-FID are to enable access to international events and to promote the participation of all people who have an intellectual disability in sports and recreational activities (Depauw & Gavoron, 2005). At the time of its founding, the INAS-FID had 14 member nations and this number has steadily grown to nearly 60 nations.

The philosophy of the INAS-FID calls for the inclusion of athletes who have an intellectual disability in the sport of their choice at their individual levels of ability--from local recreational activities to international elite competitions. This philosophy is based on the principle of normalization, which states that individuals who have an intellectual disability should be considered as members of society who are entitled to the same rights, opportunities, and duties as everyone else (INAS-FID, 2012).

The INAS-FID and Special Olympic International differ in one important aspect. The INAS-FID believes people with intellectual disabilities have the right to participate in the sport of their choice at their level of ability. However, INAS-FID is an elite sport provider, and medals are given to the top 3 finishing athletes in any given event--just as any other Paralympic (or Olympic discipline). In contrast, the Special Olympics believe in the power of sports to help all participants by helping individuals fulfill their potential. They do not believe in excluding any athlete based upon qualifying scores, but would rather divide the athletes based on their scores to ensure fair competition among people with similar abilities. Multiple gold, silver, and bronze medals area awarded at Special Olympics events, whereas only one gold, silver and bronze is provided in INAS-FID events. For athletes in the Special Olympics, excellence is equal to personal achievement with the goal of reaching one's maximum potential, which is a goal to which everyone can aspire (www.specialolympics.org).

Athletes with intellectual disabilities appeared in the Paralympics for the first time during the 1992 Winter Games in Tingnes-Albertville, France. In the 1992 Summer Paralympics in Barcelona, Spain, the INAS-FID obtained approval to hold a separate Paralympic Games for athletes with intellectual disabilities. At those games, 2,500 athletes from 73 countries participated in a variety of athletics, including basketball, soccer, swimming, and table tennis. In 1994, the INAS-FID athletes once again held demonstration events at the Lillehammer Winter Paralympics, including competing in a 5K Nordic ski race. But only at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games were INAS-FID athletes awarded full medal status for their events: long jump, 200-meter run, and the 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle in swimming. …

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