July 28, 1948. The first Olympic Games after World War II opened in London.
On the same day, 35 miles northwest of London, a very different competition opened.
The Stoke-Mandeville Games for the Paralyzed, held on the grounds of a hospital that treated injured war veterans, featured 16 people – 14 men and 2 women – competing in one sport, archery.
The games were the brainchild of Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, head of the Stoke-Mandeville Hospital’s Spinal Injuries Unit. Guttmann had realized that enforced, immobile bed rest, the standard practice in spinal injury cases, was killing his patients. He experimented with moving the patients, gently turning them over regularly, and was encouraged by the results. He began programs to strengthen the patients with simple games of ball, then wheelchair polo and basketball, darts, and archery. Patients lived and thrived, and the idea of competitive sports for people with physical disabilities took hold.
Two years later, the Stoke-Mandeville competition had expanded to sixty competitors, and javelin throwing was included. By 1954, fourteen nations were represented at Stoke-Mandeville, with athletes from as far away as Australia, Egypt, Pakistan, and Portugal.
Other countries also began to organize sports events for athletes with disabilities. In 1957, America had its first national wheelchair games.
And in 1960, 400 athletes with disabilities, from 23 countries, gathered at the Olympic Stadium in Rome, just days after the Olympics had concluded. They competed in archery, basketball, swimming, fencing, javelin, shot put, club throwing, snooker, swimming, table tennis and the pentathlon.
Over the next two decades, Paralympic competitions evolved, moving away from the “medical” model of sports-for-rehabilitation to the idea of elite sports played at the highest levels. Gradually the games also included athletes who were blind, had cerebral palsy, were amputees or had other physical disabilities; and systems were developed to classify disability levels and group athletes to create the most competitive events.
The first Games of the modern Paralympic era were held in Seoul, South Korea, in 1988. 100,000 attended the Opening Ceremonies, which featured skydivers, thousands of children, and 700 wheelchair dancers. Over 950 world records were set, with Trischa Zorn of the US winning 12 Gold medals in swimming and setting 9 world records.
A year later, the International Paralympics Committee was established, and the Games continued to grow.
Barcelona 1992: Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist with disabilities due to ALS, spoke at the Opening Ceremonies. “Each one has within us the spark of fire, a creative touch.” An archer lifted a flaming arrow over the Paralympic cauldron, igniting the Paralympic torch.
Atlanta 1996: more than 3,100 athletes from 103 countries.
Sydney 2000: 3,800 athletes, 122 countries. For the first time, Paralympic and Olympic athletes lived in the same Olympic village and had equal care and services.
Athens 2004: 3,800 athletes, 135 countries. 304 world records.
Beijing 2008: 3,950 athletes from 146 countries. 279 world records. “Games of Equal Splendor,” as the host country proclaimed.
The winter games continued to grow, too, doubling in size between the 1970s and 1990s, although still remaining smaller than the Summer Games.
And as the sports grew, they attracted remarkable technical innovations. Early sport competitions featured wheelchairs weighing 50 pounds and more; athletes would chop off pieces to streamline the chairs for competition. Today’s chairs weigh 15 pounds and offer the athletes amazing opportunities for speed and maneuverability.
Prosthetics have also changed radically. The old wood and steel has been replaced by titanium and graphite. Microchips are embedded for balance and stability. The prosthetics are computer-fitted to the athlete’s body. The results are racing times that are as fast as able-bodied athletes: in 2008, for the first time, South African Paralympian Oscar Pistorius, competing on carbon fiber prosthetics called “Cheetahs” and called “the fastest man on no legs,” won the right to compete for a place on his nation’s Olympic team.