The Paralympics, Past and Present

I probably don’t need to tell you that the 2014 Winter Olympics captured the attention of millions of people in the United States and around the world. To miss the inundation of ads, highlights, and medal updates you’d have to have avoided television, radio, and the Internet for much of February. But fewer people are likely aware of the next international athletic event taking place in Sochi: the 2014 Paralympic Games.

The Paralympics originated in Britain as a venue for people wounded in World War II to compete. Today, the Paralympic Games is one of the largest sporting events in the world. It provides an avenue for people of different physical and developmental types to compete on the world stage in a way they were never allowed to before. Like the Olympics, it celebrates friendly competition, teamwork, determination, and athletic accomplishment. The history of the Paralympics, however, reveals a far more complex picture, fraught with political, social, and even medical tensions. For many years, the Paralympics has received little media attention and poor funding. What little coverage it has gotten often reinforces stereotypes about disability as a personal tragedy to be “overcome” rather than highlighting ability and athleticism.

Veterans And Polo

Most histories of the Paralympics trace its origins to the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, and the figure of Ludwig Guttmann. A Jewish neurosurgeon who escaped Germany to Britain in 1939, Guttmann took over the Spinal Unit at Stoke Mandeville in the winter of 1944 and introduced a new approach to helping both veterans and civilians who had sustained spinal cord injuries during the war.

At this time in Britain, doctors generally didn’t try to rehabilitate people with spinal cord injuries for two reasons: they either didn’t understand the condition or didn’t have methods to treat it. In fact, if you injured your spinal cord in the 1930s or early 1940s, your likelihood for survival in the first few months was only 35 to 53 percent, and dropped to 20 percent over the next three years.1

At Stoke Mandeville, Guttmann first instituted contemporary rehabilitative exercises, which most doctors at the time thought ineffective for spinal cord injuries. He combined these with some competitive activities, such as races to see who could get themselves out of bed, dressed, and into a wheelchair fastest (the record was 4 minutes).2 This radical approach to dealing with spinal cord injury showed impressive results as it helped increase mobility for individuals who previously would have been essentially written off by society. At this time, neither British nor American society put a lot of resources into taking care of people with disabilities or those who could not care for themselves. Most people were institutionalized in crumbling, dirty, dangerous facilities where they lacked respect, care, medical attention, and any hope of getting out.

Teams from Yugoslavia and Great Britain at the 1956 opening ceremony. (National Spinal Injuries Centre Archive)
Teams from Yugoslavia and Great Britain at the 1956 opening ceremony. (National Spinal Injuries Centre Archive)

How, then, did the Paralympics develop out of this new approach to physical therapy for people with spinal cord injuries?

Though many stories credit Guttmann entirely, the idea for more organized sports activities didn’t come from him directly but, unsurprisingly, from patients themselves. As they gained strength, patients quickly grew bored of repetitive exercises and limited activities like darts or “dressing exercises.” Some of the men and women in the hospital started playing games of catch with the staff, and later developed a hybrid of polo and hockey. Guttmann saw them playing this game, which involved turning walking sticks upside down to use as mallets to hit a puck, all while navigating their 50-pound midcentury wheelchairs. Guttmann got involved and helped develop the game. It became a regular activity, with patients playing against hospital staff and physiotherapists, until it was replaced with sports such as archery, netball, and basketball, which resulted in fewer head injuries due to misplaced wooden mallets.

Sport became a fun, competitive way to gain strength and self-empowerment for patients of the Stoke Mandeville hospital. In the face of this success, Guttmann and the patients and staff at the hospital organized a higher profile competition, initially only including patients — 14 men and 2 women — from the hospital itself, to coincide with the 1948 London Olympic Games (the first after the end of World War II).

Paralympian Tatyana McFadden, at the BT Paralympics World Cup in 2009. Technology changed a lot over the past half-century, and has come to play as significant and at times controversial a role in the Paralympics as it has in the Olympics. (Stuart Grout/Flickr | CC BY)
Paralympian Tatyana McFadden, at the BT Paralympics World Cup in 2009. Technology changed a lot over the past half-century, and has come to play as significant and at times controversial a role in the Paralympics as it has in the Olympics. (Stuart Grout/Flickr | CC BY)

Building on the success of the event, they determined to continue holding what they called the Stoke Mandeville Games in conjunction with the world Olympic Games. In 1952 they became the International Stoke Mandeville Games when a small team made up of Dutch veterans traveled to compete with the British athletes. Then in 1960, the Games left Britain for the first time to take place alongside the Olympics in Rome, Italy. For the first time in 1960 non-veterans could compete, but the Games were still only open to people with spinal cord injuries. The Rome Games included 400 athletes from 23 different countries who competed in archery, basketball, fencing, javelin, shotput, and multiple swimming events. In 1964 the International Olympic Committee officially allowed the Games to change their name to the Paralympic Games.

Sports involving people with disabilities date to at least the 1800s, and likely earlier. The 1923 sports day at the Royal Star and Garter home in Richmond, Surrey, pictured here, is one of the earliest records of a sports event involving wheelchairs.
Sports involving people with disabilities date to at least the 1800s, and likely earlier. The 1923 sports day at the Royal Star and Garter home in Richmond, Surrey, pictured here, is one of the earliest records of a sports event involving wheelchairs.

The Paralympics And Equality

But while sports came to be a novel approach to rehabilitation and empowerment, the British government’s interest was less in friendly competition and more in the allocation of public resources. Julie Anderson, in a Journal of Contemporary History article, points out that the British government didn’t conceive of sports as a way to promote self-actualization or confidence for the sake of confidence, but rather as a means to restore people to the tax roles. As far as the funders were concerned, rehabilitation should restore “broken” men and women to full citizenship, which for them meant holding a job and paying taxes. Anderson reminds us that, while the result today is a vibrant sporting community, “its modern organized roots were driven by political expediency” and the goal of “transforming paralyzed ex-servicemen into taxpayers.”3

Danielle Peers, a researcher at the University of Alberta and bronze medalist at the 2004 Paralympic Games. (Richard Siemens)
Danielle Peers, a researcher at the University of Alberta and bronze medalist at the 2004 Paralympic Games. (Richard Siemens)

Danielle Peers, a PhD candidate, Trudeau Scholar and Vanier Scholar at the University of Alberta, and a bronze medalist at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, further critiques the games’ 20th-century roots as being paternalistic and valuing only an able-bodied, “normal” version of citizenship. Guttmann himself hoped that rehabilitation would “rescue these men, women and children from the human scrapheap and return most of them … to a life worth living, as useful and respected citizens.” Peers points out that this language reflected the notion at the time that people with disabilities were helpless — and, in fact, not full citizens — and in need of “rescue” by medical authorities.4

This way of thinking, Peers argues, changed to some extent over the years — thanks to the strenuous efforts of disability rights activists — but has not completely disappeared.

Paralympics stands for “Parallel Olympics,” to signify the Paralympic Games being side-by-side with the Olympic Games, but even at their most successful they often come almost as an afterthought. News coverage is rarely equal; Paralympic athletes don’t receive the same funding or bonuses for winning that Olympic athletes do; and at times the facilities have been dismally unequal. Peers, quoted in a University of Alberta news article, points to the 1996 Atlanta games as an example:

After the Olympics closed, the media left, they took down all the signs, the cafeteria did not have enough food, there was no toilet paper for the athletes to use—they just gutted the space and left the Paralympic athletes to fend for themselves. … There was a real paternalism and real quashing of any kind of revolt or resistance that the athletes have done to try and improve the games for themselves — the games that they love.

What Does Disability Mean?

Unfortunately, not only does the Paralympics not receive the same viewership, coverage, or even facilities as the Olympics, but the events also are not viewed through the same lens. Often, the message presented by media reporting doesn’t stress ability and athleticism, but instead focuses on how “inspiring” Paralympians are for “overcoming” disability.

The Paralympics, as much as the Olympics, should be about celebrating difference, the rich diversity of human bodies, and athletic competition and cooperation. But this isn’t how the Paralympics are often presented or received. As Frances Ryan wrote in an article for The Independent, “perhaps we aren’t celebrating ‘disabled success’ if we have to view it as either overcoming tragedy, or cancelling out disability all together.”

Many people view disability as a personal tragedy, something to be pitied. This way of thinking forms the basis for admiring people with disabilities who nevertheless pursue “normal” lives. As historian and activist Paul Longmore put it: “We are instructed that if we too adopt an indomitable spirit and a cheerful attitude, we can transcend our disabilities and fulfill our dreams.”5 It feels natural to celebrate such “overcoming” because this image of disability — a crushing, tragic existence to be courageously defeated — is so deeply ingrained in our culture and history. But if we listen more attentively to people with disabilities and disability rights advocates, we can better understand how harmful these attitudes can be. They reduce people from multifaceted individuals whose disability is only one part of their total experience, to the disability itself.

An emphasis on the disability, rather than the full person, can strip away self-determination and often open the door to discrimination and paternalism. It sends a message that something needs to be overcome in order to succeed.

We should celebrate the Paralympics (just as we do the Olympics) as an example of human determination, achievement, and diversity, and use the games to remind us that we need to do much more to address inequality and injustice. As Paul Longmore has said, “For the vast majority of people with disabilities, prejudice is a far greater problem than any impairment: discrimination is a bigger obstacle for them to ‘overcome’ than any disability.”

I leave you with an advertisement for this year’s Paralympic Games in Sochi, which start tomorrow, March 7, 2014, and ask for your thoughts. Do you think this ad does a good job of representing athletes with respect?

(#WHATSTHERE (:60s): Team Canada Sochi 2014 Commercial, 2014.)

Further Reading

The website Mandeville Legacy includes historical essays, oral histories, and some additional source material tracing the history of the Paralympics from the Stokes Mandeville hospital.

History of the Paralympics,” BBC, July 6, 2004, sec. Paralympics.

History of the Paralympics,” PBS: Medal Quest.

Is It Time for the Paralympics and Olympics to Merge?,” The Arc of North Carolina, July 9, 2012.

Andrew Holman, “In Conversation with Tracey Mccillen,” British Journal of Learning Disabilities 40.4 (December 2012): 248–250, discusses the limited inclusion of people with learning disablities in the Paralympic Games, as well as the reactionary response to the scandal at the Syndey games.

Karen P. DePauw, “A Historical Perspective of the Paralympic Games,” Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance 83.3 (2012): 21–22, 31.

Steve Bailey, Athlete First: A History of the Paralympic Movement (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).


  1. Julie Anderson, “‘Turned into Taxpayers’: Paraplegia, Rehabilitation and Sport at Stoke Mandeville, 1944-56,” Journal of Contemporary History 38, no. 3 (July 1, 2003): 464. Return to text.
  2. Ibid., 465. Return to text.
  3. Ibid., 474-75. Return to text.
  4. Danielle Peers, “Patients, Athletes, Freaks Paralympism and the Reproduction of Disability,” Journal of Sport & Social Issues 36, no. 3 (August 1, 2012): 303, doi:10.1177/0193723512442201. Return to text.
  5. Paul K. Longmore, “Why I Burned My Book,” in Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2003), 231. Return to text.

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Can you please tell me your thoughts on the advert first? I feel like a student in the classroom being posed a trick question. I guess they are drawing attention to the disability by trying to focus our attention away from it “Its not what is missing…”. Perhaps their reference was too literal suggesting that they are somehow not ‘whole’. Maybe they don’t even need to refer the disability and like other Olympians just refer to their achievements (rather than always an against the odds story)?

Adam Turner

I didn’t mean it to sound like a trick question, or to entrap anybody. I don’t have concrete answers. It’s a complicated issue that we all need to do a better job of talking about, rather than avoiding. That said, I think that for a 60-second spot, this ad does okay.

I agree with your suggestion that maybe they don’t even need to highlight the disability (in this case by “revealing” it at the end). I wonder why, for example, they don’t just do an ad like those for the Olympics. Why the “gotcha” style? That said, I think this ad works well to not ignore the disability but also not focus on it. It does seem to be trying to strike a balance. It seems like it could be very effective for audiences that are primed to assume that people with disabilities can’t be serious athletes.


Ok good then, I was trying to look into it too hard. My initial thought was that it seemed ok, but then you asked the question… I did enjoy your post and I’m trying hard to understand things from others perspectives…too be honest I’m constantly afraid of offending people. How does anyone ever get it right most of the time with people? It doesn’t come naturally to me.

Adam Turner

You’re absolutely right. These are complicated subjects, and I’m happy to hear you enjoyed the post. My opinion is that it isn’t so much about getting it right — we all come to things with our own experiences and assumptions — but about trying to be caring and attentive to other people’s voices. The thing is, we’re going to occasionally offend people accidentally. The goal is to not do it on purpose, to learn from these experiences, and to talk about these difficult issues nonetheless. This 2011 article by Jen Chau on the Racialicious blog describes this approach really nicely.


Thank you so much for your reassuring reply. I loved the article by Jen Chau and I’m going to share it on facebook. The article is particularly meaningful for me at this time in Australian politics. Australians’ need to discuss race more, not just during crisis eg. the ‘Manus island’ incident the culmination of racist policy against asylum seekers, resulting in death and injury to asylum seekers during riots to protest against their inhumane treatment.


I wonder if these sports will only be truly equal if able bodied people were allowed to participate? I suspect a partially sighted person would do better at guided skiing than a fully sighted person wearing vision restricted goggles anyway, and an amputee might be faster on a sit-ski than someone with legs, but it would be interesting to show that in actual races.


Reblogged this on and commented:
In today’s Sunday “Blog” from the Past, Adam Turner describes how the Paralympics was born out of efforts to treat British WWII veterans who suffered spinal cord injuries. Turner explains that “political expediency” and not the Olympic spirit drove the the British government to fund these efforts. The primary rationale behind the Games was to turn “broken” men and women into “taxpayers.” The Games are still saddled with the message that they are “inspiring” because people have “overcome” their disabilities. Turner argues that the Paralympics should be seen as an example of “human determination, achievement and diversity.” He also believes that Paralympics represent an opportunity address the discrimination, “inequality and injustice” that many disabled people face around the world.

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