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Page last updated at 07:53 GMT, Thursday, 4 September 2008 08:53 UK

History of the Paralympics

Tanni Grey Thompson
Tanni Grey Thompson is Britain's most successful Paralympian with 11 golds

The Paralympics have come a long way from its humble beginnings as a rehabilitation programme for British war veterans with spinal injuries.

Back in 1948, Sir Ludwig Guttmann, a neurologist who was working with World War II veterans with spinal injuries at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, began using sport as part of the rehabilitation programmes of his patients.

He set up a competition with other hospitals to coincide with the London Olympics in that year.

Over the next decade Guttmann's care plan was adopted by other spinal injury units in Britain and competition grew.

In 1960, the Olympics were held in Rome, and Guttmann brought 400 wheelchair athletes to the Olympic city to compete. The modern Parallel Olympics (or "Paralympics") were born.

Britain's first ever gold medal was won by Margaret Maughan that year in archery - the first sport to be included in Guttmann's treatment plans.

1948 - Stoke Mandeville
1960 - Rome
1964 - Tokyo, Japan
1968 - Tel Aviv
1972 - Heidelberg
1976 - Toronto
1980 - Arnhem
1984 - Stoke Mandeville & New York
1988 - Seoul
1992 - Barcelona
1996 - Atlanta
2000 - Sydney
2004 - Athens

In 1964, the able-bodied athletes went to Tokyo for the Olympics and shortly afterward the Japanese capital also played host to the disabled athletes.

The games in Japan saw the introduction of wheelchair racing - although only in the normal day-to-day chairs rather than the space age machines used by the Paralympians of today.

While the Olympics went to Mexico in 1968, the Paralympics were staged in Israel and four years later were held in Heidelberg while the Olympics were in Munich.

They saw more than 1,000 athletes from 44 countries participating and people with quadriplegic spinal injuries competed for the first time while visually impaired athletes took part in demonstration events.

The visually impaired took a full part in medal events in Toronto in 1976. Their participation, along with debuts for amputee and mixed disabilities ("les autres"), athletes boosted the number of competitors to 1600.

Specialised racing wheelchairs were used for the first time.

BBC Sport's Tony Garrett

Politics reared its ugly head in 1980 as the Soviet Union could not, or would not, agree to the Paralympics taking place and as a result 2,500 disabled athletes from 42 countries went to Arnhem in Holland to compete.

The Paralympic movement invited athletes with cerebral-palsy to compete for the first time.

Four years later, Britain and the United States joined forces as hosts with events being held at Stoke Mandeville and New York. The Wheelchair Marathon race was added to the competition for the first time.


The 1980's ended on a high note for the Paralympic movement, with the 1988 games in Seoul.

A high jump competitor at the 1992 Paralympics
The Paralympic bar was raised at the Barcelona Games in 1992

The Koreans decided that the games should be truly "parallel" and so they were staged on the same scale and lines as the Olympics.

It saw an unprecedented level of co-operation between the organising committees of the Olympics and Paralympics.

The 1992 Barcelona Paralympics took the Games one step further with 3,500 athletes from 82 countries competing in front packed stadia.

Following the Barcelona Games, athletes with learning disabilities had their own Paralympics in Madrid.

Unfortunately a lot of the good work of Barcelona was undone four years later in Atlanta.

The Paralympic Organising Committee received little help from their Olympic counterparts and athletes complained about the facilities in the Olympic Village and about the city's transport system.

The athletes competed in almost empty venues.

However, it was not all bad - Atlanta was the first Paralympic games to benefit from having world-wide sponsors, athletes with learning disabilities were integrated into the main programme, equestrian was added to the list of sports, with sailing and wheelchair rugby being included as demonstration events.

Atlanta 1996 also saw a record number of participating nations and record number of world bests set.


Sydney was the first city in the southern hemisphere to host the Paralympics.

A staggering 132 countries took part with rugby and wheelchair basketball given full medal status, but the Games was not without some controversy.

Joy soon turned to shame when Spain's intellectually disabled basketball team were stripped of their medals after an investigation by the Spanish Paralympic Committee proved only two out of their 12 players suffered from a mental disability.

But this failed to taint the overall success of the Games, which enjoyed packed stadiums and unprecedented media coverage across the world - making it the best Paralympics ever.


Of the record 135 nations competing at the 2004 Athens Paralympics, there were 17 new countries competing in 19 sports.

Japan's Mayumi Narita
Japan's Narita won eight swimming medals in Athens

Just under 4,000 athletes took part, setting 304 new world records and 448 Paralympic records.

China topped the medal table for the first time; Britain was second with 35 gold medals out of a total of 94.

Two British swimmers won four gold medals each - Dave Roberts and Jim Anderson.

Among the best individual performers were Japanese swimmer Mayumi Narita who won seven gold and one bronze medal.

And Canadian wheelchair athlete Chantal Peticlerc claimed five gold medals in the 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m and 1,500m races, setting three world records.

It is all a far cry from the movement's humble beginnings in in Stoke Mandeville.

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How are the Paralympics perceived?
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Disability Sport on the BBC
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