The Greek word para is a suffix commonly employed in medical and scientific usage in reference to disciplines or circumstances that are stand beside or are comparable to a preexisting condition. The Paralympics are the disabled athletes version of the Olympic Games in both summer and winter, each conducted in the same competitive venues with similar competitive structures as the Olympics.
The Paralympians and many of their Olympic counterparts share another common athletic attribute—their Games are the only true showcase of their talents in a sports world otherwise dominated by exploits of teams and players competing in professional leagues.
When the modern Olympics grew from the stewardship of Baron de Coubertin (1893–1937), who sought to emulate the ancient Olympic ideals of "higher, faster, stronger," the Paralympics have taken a direction that is in many ways a symbol of the inclusivity and the respect that disabled persons are now accorded throughout the world; the motto of the Paralympics, "Spirit in Motion" is an extension of the broader vision of the Paralympics movement, "Empower, Achieve, Aspire," an encapsulation of the stated purpose of the Paralympic Games, to enable Paralympians to achieve sporting excellence and inspire and excite the world.
The roots of the Paralympics stem from the carnage and the human suffering caused by World War II. Sports clubs for disabled persons had existed since the late 1800s, but these groups were not a part of any national or regional organizational structure. In 1944, the British government opened a treatment facility for badly injured armed forces personnel at the town of Stoke Mandeville. The chief physician at the facility, Dr. Ludwig Guttmann (1899–1980), instituted sport programs for the wheelchair-bound patients as a part of their overall physical therapy. By 1948, the programs had evolved from purely therapeutic applications to recreational sport, and the first Stoke Mandeville Games were held for wheelchair athletes.
In 1952, the inaugural effort was expanded when a Dutch group of disabled persons joined the British facility to create the first disabled athletes sports organization, the International Stoke Mandeville Games Committee. By 1960, the Stoke Mandeville initiative had evolved into the forerunner of the modern Paralympics movement. The Paralympics are now contested in the same years as the Olympics. The Paralympic movement is headed by the International Paralympics Committee (IPC), which is representative of over 160 national Paralympics committees, as well as four distinct international sports federations, each formed to advance and regulate the interests of specific athletic interests: cerebral palsy, vision impaired, intellectually disabled, and wheelchair/amputee athletes. The IPC is a member of the Olympics movement, and it is a signatory to international sports protocols such as the World Anti-Doping Agency's Anti-Doping Code. The Paralympics are a distinct athletic avenue from the Special Olympics movement, which is a global organization devoted to athletes with intellectual disability.
Paralympic events are largely traditional individual and team Olympic sports that have been modified to accommodate the physical limitations of the competitors. Sports developed specifically for disabled athletes include boccia, a sport designed for persons afflicted with cerebral palsy that requires balls to be directed toward a target, with the competitor seated in a wheelchair, and goalball, a competition where vision-impaired athletes react to the sound of a ball being directed toward an opponent's goal.
The classification of athletes is a process at the root of the rules of competition in both the Summer and Winter Paralympics. Disabilities are often unique to each athlete, and to ensure fair competition, the IPC developed rules regarding the manner in which athletes would be classified in each sport. The classification process involves both technical and physical assessments of each athlete, in concert with observations of the athlete both in and out of competition. The key tool in the determination of an athlete's classification is the degree of function. There are six general areas of classification, which include:
- Amputees: These are athletes who have had a minimum of one major joint in a limb removed, often a knee or an elbow. In some classifications, an amputee will compete using a wheelchair.
- Cerebral palsy: This classification refers to athletes who suffer from one of a group of motor disorders that impair movement and motor control. Cerebral palsy athletes often compete in wheelchairs.
- Vision impaired: This classifies athletes with all manner of sight limitations, from those whose sight ranges from correctable vision problems to those are experience 100% blindness.
- Spinal cord injuries: This classification is for athletes whose spinal cord has been damaged so as to limit movement in arms, legs, or both. Parapalegia and quadrapalegia are the most common conditions.
- Intellectual disability: This classifies athletes who have either lower functioning mental abilities or who suffer from a specific limiting disability. The intellectual function of the athlete is assessed through the determination of a number of factors considered as a whole, including self-care, community use, home living, level of social skills, and leisure and work pursuits. The intellectually disabled athlete must have been so disabled prior to age 18.
- Others: This classifies athletes whose disability limits their ability to move but does not fit into one of the first five headings. Dwarfism, the genetic disease whereby growth is severely stunted, is an example.
The wheelchair is a common denominator to many of the athletes in the six general classifications. As a general rule, an athlete must have at least 10% loss of function in their lower legs to be permitted into the wide range of wheelchair-based events. The modern wheelchair is a sophisticated piece of athletic equipment, with each type of machine designed for a specific application. The wheelchair basketball athletes, whose sport involves significant contact between the competitors while on their machines, are significantly different than the ultra-light, very sleek racing versions used both on the track and on the roads for distance racing. The progression in the development of racing wheelchairs mirrored the technological advances in the design of racing bicycles, as each relies on light metals such as titanium and carbon fiber composites in construction.
Within this framework, each of the Paralympic sports develops its own event specific classifications. As an example, Paralympic alpine skiing has three visually impaired classes (to differentiate between varying levels of sight), seven amputee classes (to encompass the ranges of amputee and prosthetic usage), and three seated ski divisions, for different types of quadriplegia. Athletes compete only against competitors who fall within their designated range of disability.
Athletics, or track and field, provides the opportunity for the greatest range of competitions at the Summer Paralympic Games. When possible, given the purpose of the Paralympics, the rules of the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) are employed in competition. Various athletics events, such as wheelchair racing, are the subject of significant competition at annual international events as well as venues such as the Boston Marathon and other international races. The IPC maintains an active world record databank in all of the disciplines.
The particular interest of both the Paralympic movement and its member athletes is the continued research and development of more effective sports science applications to assist the disabled. Known as the VISTA conferences, the IPC convenes a biennial event to further the science of disabled sport. One focus of the VISTA conferences has been the enhancement of physiological testing methods to further refine the classification of disabled athletes.
The IPC became a signatory to the WADA Code with an appreciation that doping could be as serious a matter in Paralympic competition as in any able-bodied one. In 2004, the IPC instituted, with WADA, an out-of-competition testing program, providing for both random drug tests and those conducted with a measure of advance notice to the athletes. In further recognition of its athletic constituency, the IPC maintains a Therapeutic Use Exemption list, where athletes may apply to the IPC to use an otherwise banned substance for treatment purposes. A common example of such a medication is any member of the corticosteroid class of anti-inflammatory.
Most Paralympic athletes have trained and competed in obscurity throughout the history of disabled athletic competition. The Olympics are the most publicized sports event in the world; the Paralympics, which follow every Olympic festival, garner a very small fraction of the media attention. The world at large may respect and admired these Paralympic athletes for their efforts in their achievements in overcoming disability, but it is a respect that is muted, especially in the global sport media. The perception of the Paralympic athlete as one performing in the shadows of the able-bodied was altered to a considerable degree in Canada in 2004 by Chantal Petitclaire, winner of five gold medals in various wheelchair events at the 2004 Athens Paralympics, the greatest ever Paralympic performance. Petitclaire spoke out publicly about her concerns of being cast as an athletic second-class citizen, not capable of having the magnitude of her accomplishments measured on an equal footing against those of able-bodied athletes in the voting for Canada's female athlete of the year. Petitclaire asserted that any other consideration of her achievements in the Paralympics denigrated the efforts of all disabled athletes. Petitclaire's crusade was endorsed by the Canadian sports media, and she was ultimately the recipient of the national female athlete of the year for 2004. Petitclaire was the first such disabled athlete to be recognized for a mainstream athletic award in North America.