History of the Paralympics
Originally a rehabilitation programme for war veterans with spinal injuries, the Paralympics has come a long way. Celebrating its 15th event in 2012, London is a stark contrast from Stoke Mandeville hospital in Aylesbury where it was first held.
Creator Sir Ludwig Guttmann hosted the first competition in 1948, held between hospitals to coincide with the Olympics, expanding in 1960 by taking 400 wheelchair athletes to Rome in order to compete and this created the universally recognised Paralympic games.
By 1964, it had been recognised as an official sport, with Tokyo hosting both the Olympics, and then the Paralympics later that year. Introducing wheelchair racing, athletes would race in day-to-day wheelchairs rather than the modified ones of today. These weren’t introduced until 1976, when Toronto welcomed 1600 competitors of mixed disabilities, with visually impaired athletes taking part in demonstrations.
With both events split, the next eight years saw the two events being celebrated in different countries. Heidelberg saw more than 1,000 athletes from 44 different countries participating in the games, including those with quadriplegic spinal injuries who had not competed before.
Controversy surrounded the events of 1980 with the Soviet Union refusing to let the Paralympics take place, resulting in the 2,500 disabled hopefuls being relocated to Holland. This year proved monumental for the cerebral palsy suffers, who were given permission to participate for the first time.
Britain had the honour of joining forces with the United States to host the first linked Paralympics, with games being held in both New York and Stoke Mandeville. With the Paralympics fast gaining influence, the 1988 games in Seoul, Korea, took the Paralympics to a higher level by staging them on the same scale as the Olympics, with the organising committee’s working together for the first time.
By 1992, the Paralympics were seeing more than 3,500 athletes from 82 countries competing in front of packed stadiums. This came to a crashing end when athletes performed in empty venues. The Olympic committee had done little to help Paralympic organisers with the city’s transport system stopping visitors visiting the games. With the help of sponsors athletes with learning disabilities were integrated into the main program, with equestrian sport being added to the competition.
In an otherwise successful Paralympics, Spain was disgraced when an investigation showed that only two of their 12 basketball competitors suffered with a mental disability. This resulted in their medals being stripped from the team.
With 2004 seeing over 4,000 disabled athletes competing in 19 sports for 525 gold medals, China clearly were the most successful winning 141 medals. America tainted there otherwise successful collaboration when no television network staying to cover the events, this resulted in U.S viewers having to wait two months before the coverage was broadcast.
The 2008 Paralympic games in Beijing were not free of scandal, with multiple rumours of ‘doping’ amongst hopefuls. Ahmet Coskun was ‘unaware’ that the hair growth hormone he used had a banned substance in ‘finasteride’. Alongside the doping scandals, 99 hopefuls were ‘reclassified’ and subsequently disqualified for declaring false or mild disabilities. The closing ceremony, however, put all previous games to shame. Incorporating interactivity throughout the games, viewers were touched by a palpable letter encompassing the hopes of the future. A concept that has been adapted by Coventry in the ‘Godiva Awakes’ ceremony, where she will travel across the country collecting letters of hope from children.
Despite the scandal that has rocked every year, the Paralympics is growing rapidly with more paralympians proving themselves strong competitors. 2012 will see the biggest Paralympic event in the history with 4,200 participants over 20 games; the competition is fierce with these athletes.