Access for All: The Rise of the Paralympic Games

By Gold, John R.; Gold, Margaret M. | The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health, May 2007 | Go to article overview

Access for All: The Rise of the Paralympic Games


Gold, John R., Gold, Margaret M., The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health


Abstract

The Paralympic, or Parallel, Games for athletes with disabilities have played a major role over the past half century in changing attitudes towards disability and accelerating the agenda for inclusion. This article charts their development from small beginnings as a competition for disabled ex-servicemen and women in England founded shortly after the Second World War to the present day ambulatory international festival of Summer and Winter Games organized in conjunction with the Olympic Games.

The Paralympic Games trace their origins to the work of Dr (later Sir) Ludwig Guttmann at the National Spinal Injuries Unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire who used sport as an integral part of the treatment of paraplegic patients. A sports competition was held at the hospital to coincide with the Opening Ceremony of the London Games in July 1948. This became an annual event attracting the first international participation in 1952, after which it became the International Stoke Mandeville Games. From 1960 onwards attempts were made to hold every fourth Games in the Olympic host city.

Despite initial success in staging the 1960 Games in Rome and the 1964 Games in Tokyo, subsequent host cities refused to host the competitions and alternative locations were found where a package of official support, finance and suitable venues could be assembled. In 1976, the scope of the Games was widened to accept other disabilities. From 1988 onwards, a process of convergence took place that saw the Paralympics brought into the central arena of the Olympics, both literally and figuratively. In the process they have embraced new sports, have encompassed a wider range of disabilities, and helped give credence to the belief that access to sport is available to all. The Paralympics also underline the change from sport as therapeutic competition to that of elite events that carry intrinsic prestige, with growing rivalry over medal tables. For the future, however, questions remain as to whether the current arrangements of separate but supposedly equal festivals assist the continuing development of the Paralympics or perpetuate difference.

Key words

Disability, inclusiveness, Olympics, Paralympics, Stoke Mandeville

INTRODUCTION

Few developments have challenged existing ways of thinking about sport and disability more than the rise of the Paralympic Games. seen as the summit of disability sport, the Paralympic Games have played a major part in changing attitudes by emphasizing achievement rather than impairment, by accelerating the agenda of inclusion and by helping to promote the concept of a barrier-free environment within town planning and architectural discourse. The Games themselves have had considerable impact on those parts of the world where disability was ideologically problematic, forcing changes in official attitudes, if only to accommodate international opinion in order to win the bidding process to hold the event. Above all, they have raised the status of disabled sport to the point where participants earn esteem as athletes in their own right, thereby challenging prevailing assumptions and stereotypes about 'disability'.

This article charts the development of the Paralympics from small beginnings as a competition for disabled ex-servicemen and women in the grounds of Stoke Mandeville Hospital in England to the present day ambulatory international festival. In doing so, it reflects on the transformation in disability sport over the years from an emphasis on what athletes cannot do and their deviation from the norm to an emphasis on excellence.1 The changing understanding of the word 'Paralympics' itself is symptomatic of this change in thinking. The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) admits that the term was originally a pun combining 'paraplegic' and Olympic',2 effectively confronting Olympian traditions of celebrating excellence and the perfectly formed body with the realities of disability. …

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