"The sport you witness here will change you. Not just for now, but forever."
— Sir Philip Craven, during the Opening Ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Paralympics
The Paralympic Games are an independent, but officially endorsed Spin-Off of the Olympic Games for extraordinary athletes who just so happen to have disabilities; and here, that's something to be embraced. They are traditionally held a few weeks following the conclusion of the Summer or Winter Olympic Games (which gives organizers ample time to replace all the Olympic livery with Paralympic livery and adapt venues to accomodate Paralympic events, among other things), and have historically been the smaller underdog to the Olympics. However, what the Paralympics lose in size, they gain back with inspiring stories, an overall feel-good atmosphere, and the locals appreciating 10-12 more days to relive the excitement of the Games that only just ended (especially for those who couldn't afford to, or even manage to get tickets for the Olympics.)
While the Olympics have always been a tough act to follow, the Paralympics have grown significantly since they were first held (per canon) in 1960; the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London were the first Paralympics to bring greater media attention (except from NBC, as usual), and an unprecedented demand for tickets. Oh, and Stephen Hawking and Coldplay even headlined the opening and closing ceremonies too, respectively.
Owing to what influenced their creation, the Paralympics have been operated very similarly to the Olympics in recent years; they share the same venues and infrastructure and also have similar traditions and protocol (medals, torch relays, etc). They also share many of the same events, including a few Paralympic-specific events such as wheelchair rugby (a.k.a. Murderball), Goalball (a handball-styled game for the blind—there are bells in the ball to help the players hear it), powerlifting, 5-a-side and 7-a-side Football (Downsized association football for the blind, and those with neurological disorders such as cerebral palsy respectively), wheelchair racing (of course!), and Boccia (a Bocce-related game that also plays host to some of the most disabled athletes at the Paralympics).
While originally only open to wheelchair athletes (with a particular emphasis on veterans of World War II), they have since expanded to include events for all many different disabilities (but most prominently the blind, those suffering from cerebral palsy, and the intellectually disabled.) To provide a level playing field,
athletes are given classes based off their type and level of disability, and compete in competitions specific to each class (for instance, classes T42 through T46 in athletics deal with those who have amputated limbs, while T11-13 deal with differing levels of blindness.)
The first Paralympics were organized by the International Stoke Mandeville Games Federation, but in following years by the International Sports Organization for the Disabled (an organization founded by the International War Veterans Association). ISOD was replaced in 1984 by the International Co-ordination Committee of World Sports Organizations for the Disabled (or, the much, much shorter ICC), a union of several organizations related to disability sports. The ICC was re-organized to form the International Paralympic Committee in 1989. While the IOC and IPC do share a degree of cooperation (all of the IPC's delegates are also honorary IOC members), they are still distinct organizations. The IPC also serves as the main governing body for 9 disability sports (including Wheelchair DanceSport, which surprisingly isn't a Paralympic event)
The Paralympics have their origins in the Stoke Mandeville Games; it was an archery competition organized by Dr. Ludwig Guttmann and held in, well, Stoke Mandeville (a village in England with a hospital that deals with spinal cord injuries). The athletes were World War II veterans confined to wheelchairs, and they were held on the first day of the 1948 Olympics in London. However, Guttman had more ambitious plans: he wanted to create a parallel to the Olympics for the disabled. His progress was being noticed: in 1952 the Netherlands became the first international team to compete (becoming the International Stoke Mandeville Games), and the IOC honoured Guttmann with an award for his "meritorious achievement in service to the Olympic movement" in 1956.
Guttmann's dream became reality in 1960 when the International Stoke Mandeville Games were held in Rome following their 1960 Summer Olympics; the first to be held in parallel with the Olympics. 400 athletes from 23 countries competed in 8 sports at the 1960 Games (which were still wheelchair-only, however); while still small by Olympic standards (so small that every athlete was guaranteed a medal), it was still a major achievement. Following Rome, the I.S.M.G. would be held every four years, and organizers also tried to hold them in the same cities as the Olympics as well. Emphasis on the word "tried"; while Tokyo embraced the concept, Mexico City, eh, not so much. It wasn't until Seoul 1988 that the Games finally shared hosts with the Olympics again. In 1976, the (ahem) "Winter Olympic Games for the Disabled" were first held as well, and the Games also began adding other disability categories beyond just wheelchairs, such as the visually impaired and amputees.
In 1984, the International Olympic Committee made the term "Paralympics" (referring to an event held in parallel with the Olympics) a canon name for the events, and retconned every International Stoke Mandeville Games since 1960 (both summer and winter) as being Paralympic Games. The IOC also began to be a major partner in the organization of the newly-named Paralympics; the 1988 Summer Paralympics in Seoul were organized in cooperation between the IOC and ICC, Games which now hosted a total of 732 athletes in 16 sports. Since this cooperation began, the Paralympics have been held in the same cities as the Olympics (and beginning in 2000, incorporation of the Paralympics became an official requirement for future Olympic bids).
The Games so far
I — 1960: Rome, Italy: The first canon Paralympics, but technically the 9th Annual International Stoke Mandeville Games. Archer Margaret Maughan was notably the first British athlete to win what is now Paralympic gold. 400 athletes from 23 countries participated; allegedly most events had guaranteed medals because there were just so few competitors!
II — 1964: Tokyo, Japan: The final Paralympics to share a host city with the Olympics until 1988. Also notably used the term "Paralympic" for the first time.
III — 1968: Tel Aviv, Israel: Mexico City passed, leaving Israel to offer themselves to host.
IV — 1972: Heidelberg, West Germany: Demonstration sports for the blind were held
V — 1976: Toronto, Canada: The first to add events for amputees and the blind.
VI — 1980: Arnhem, Netherlands
VII — 1984: Stoke Mandeville and Long Island: The University of Illinois was to host it, but pulled out for financial reasons just three months prior. Stoke Mandeville and Long Island jointly hosted the games; owing to its heritage and experience, Stoke Mandeville hosted the wheelchair events for athletes with spinal cord injuries.
VIII — 1988: Seoul, South Korea: At this point, the IOC began cooperating with the ICC (and later IPC). The Paralympics now hosted 3,057 athletes from 61 nations.
IX — 1992: Barcelona, Spain: The first to feature Wheelchair Tennis as an official event, and the first to feature events for those with intellectual disabilities, but only in the "Paralympic Games for Persons with mental handicap" held following the games (Yes. The spin-off has a spin-off.)
X — 1996: Atlanta, United States: Officially introduced the ID class events, which brought events for those with a mental disability into the Games proper. Its mascot, a Phoenix named Blaze (which was, on the other hand, much better looking than Izzy) became a symbol for disability sports in the U.S. following the games, even more so given that Atlanta's Paralympic legacy organization even re-branded itself as BlazeSports America.
XI — 2000: Sydney, Australia: Infamous for a cheating scandal surrounding Spain (see Cheaters Never Prosper below), and local folk group The Seekers finally getting to perform their signature song "The Carnival Is Over" (a local Memetic Mutation for ending "special" events held in Australia) during the Closing Ceremonies with lead singer Judith Durham appropriately in a wheelchair (they were supposed to perform at the Olympics' closing ceremony, but Durham broke her hip)
XII — 2004: Athens, Greece: The Paralympics meet the home of the Olympics, with 3,806 athletes from 136 nations in 19 sports. The ID events were suspended following the events of Sydney, while most of the closing ceremony was cancelled out of respect to 7 students who were killed in a bus crash on their way to the Games.
XIII — 2008: Beijing, People's Republic of China: 3,591 athletes competed, and of course, China dominated.
XIV — 2012: London, England: The Paralympics return to their spiritual birthplace in style. The torch relay featured tributes to the Games past; the relay proper began at Stoke Mandeville Stadium, and the flame was lit by Britain's first ever Paralympic gold medalist, Margaret Maughan. Widely regarded as the grandest Paralympics ever, with 4,294 athletes, historic ticket sales, and ceremonies which starred Stephen Hawking and Coldplay respectively. Oh, and ID events came back too.
XV — 2016: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Canoeing and Triathlon will be added to the program. Organizers have reportedly taken notes from London.
I — 1976: Örnsköldsvik, Sweden: The first Winter Paralympics ever (but known as the "Winter Olympic Games for the Disabled"), with only two events (Alpine skiing and Cross-country skiing), and 198 athletes (blind and amputees) from 16 countries.
II — 1980: Geilo, Norway: 18 countries, 299 athletes. Now with Ice sledge speed racing, and sledge downhill as a demonstration sport.
III — 1984: Innsbruck, Austria: 21 countries, 419 athletes
IV — 1988: Innsbruck, Austria (yes, again): 22 countries, 377 athletes. Also Biathlon.
V — 1992: Tignes-Albertville, France: 365 athletes from 24 countries. Ice sledge speed racing is gone. Last Winter Paralympics held outside of the Olympic host city.
VI — 1994: Lillehammer, Norway: 471 athletes from 31 countries. Sledge Hockey debuted, and Ice sledge speed racing returned (but this time indoors)
VII — 1998: Nagano, Japan: 571 athletes from 32 countries, the largest Paralympic turnout ever, and the first outside of Europe.
VIII — 2002: Salt Lake City, United States: 416 athletes from 36 countries. First Paralympics in North America.
IX — 2006: Turin, Italy: 486 athletes from 39 countries. Wheelchair curling debuts.
X — 2010: Vancouver, Canada: 506 athletes from 44 countries. Viviane Forest became the first to win a gold medal at both the Summer and Winter Paralympics (she was on Canada's goalball team in 2000 and 2004), Brian Mc Keeveralmost became the first athlete to compete at both the Winter Olympics and Paralympics in the same year (he was named to both teams, but got pulled out of the Olympic Men's 50 km cross-country race by their coach), and Canada faced upset losses to Japan and Denmark in the sledge hockey semi-finals and bronze medal game (the U.S. would blank Japan in the finals).
XI — 2014: Sochi, Russia: Snowboarding debuted, Russia pretty much dominated the majority of the competitions. Also, NBC finally aired decent coverage for once, and hell froze over when they aired the Opening Ceremony live (on NBCSN, but still. They would never do that for the Olympics unless they were being held within the Americas). The Ukrainian team was in the spotlight for much of the Games, primarily because of the military intervention in Crimea.
XII — 2018: Pyeongchang, South Korea
The Paralympics provide examples of
Artificial Limbs: Not with every sport involving athletes missing a limb (e.g. the high jump) but a few (e.g. the running).
Awesome, but Impractical: The outfits the delegation from Mauritania wore for the London 2012 opening ceremony featured tunics with ENORMOUS sleeves. They looked brilliant fluttering in the breeze... but they weren't so great for operating a wheelchair with.
Badass Boast: In the run up to Channel 4 coverage after the 2012 Olympic Games were over they put out an advert which ended with a title card with a message for the able bodied athletes: "Thanks for the warm up".
Character Overlap: Disabled athletes sometimes competed in the Olympics from time to time before the establishment of the Paralympics, but several Paralympic athletes have competed at the Olympics too. The most recent and well-known example was Oscar Pistorius, who in 2012, became the first double amputee to compete at the Summer Olympica. While having a disappointing finish in the 400 meter and 4 x 400m Relay in the Olympics, he had better success in the Paralympics, scoring Golds in the T44 400m and the T42-46 4 x 100m Relay. Pistorius was theBreakout Character of the 2012 Summer Paralympics, and the heavy demand for tickets to the track and field events was partially credited to his presence.
In 2010, Canadian goalball gold medalist Viviane Forest won gold in the Women's visually impaired Downhill, becoming the first to do so in both the Summer and Winter Paralympics.
IPC delegates (including its president, Sir Phillip Craven) are also honorary members of the IOC. Recent Paralympics have also shared most of the same organizing staff as well.
2012 also had character overlap with auto racing; Alex Zanardi, who had a Career-Ending Injury at an Indy Car race in September 2001 (losing both his legs), has recently pursued a career in hand-cycling. He would win gold in the men's road time trial event. Curiously, it was held at Brands Hatch, a track that he's raced before ... both in a standard racing car before his injury, and in an adapted touring car after it. With no British riders in said event, many British fans rooted for him instead.
Thomas Bach, current IOC president, made a cameo at the 2014 opening ceremony
Character Tiers: Most prominently in athletics and swimming, athletes are given classes based off functional and medical criteria, and then participate in separate events with similarly classed competitors. In team sports such as wheelchair rugby and basketball, athletes are classified in increments of .5 (with 4.5 being the least disabled in wheelchair basketball); in the case of basketball, the total points of the five players on-court cannot be higher than 14.
Cheaters Never Prosper / Obfuscating Disability: Alongside the typical doping incidents, there was a very awkward scandal at the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney. The Spanish Basketball ID team was stripped of their gold medals when an undercover reporter exposed that 10 of their 12 members were too smart. Allegedly, the Spanish Paralympic team did not administer the required IQ tests, and was intentionally letting non-disabled athletes in for other events so they could have a better chance at medals and sponsorship deals. As a result, ID events were put on hiatus until 2012; now the IPC uses "sports intelligence" tests to ensure ID-class athletes are eligible to compete. Despite the partial return of ID events, Basketball ID has never been played at the Paralympics since.
Competitive Balance: This is the reason for grading the players capabilities in Basketball and Rugby, as there is a point cap that the team must abide by.
Other events have this too, for instance there are numerous categories for running in each distance because of this. Swimming also does this; though you may still see one competitor walk to the pool while the person in the next lane uses a wheelchair; it's still balanced because the person who walked will also have moderate power or control issues with their upper body, while the wheelchair user will have serious leg problems but be almost unimpaired above the waist.
Curb-Stomp Battle: At the 2012 Paralympics, Oscar Pistorious won his 200 m heat by several metres breaking the World Record by almost one and a half seconds.
Due to the Dead: The closing ceremony in Athens was dramatically cut down out of respect for the seven students who were killed in a bus crash on their way to attend the Paralympics. The entire cultural segment was replaced by a moment of silence, leaving just the entry of athletes, final speeches, the handover to Beijing (which also officially unveiled the new Paralympic emblem), and the extinguishing of the cauldron.
Foe-Tossing Charge: In wheelchair rugby some of the impacts are powerful enough to lift the player on the receiving end clear off the ground and tilt the chair 90 degrees.
Groin Attack: One of the Paralympic wheelchair fencers got stabbed right in the groin region. Unfortunately for the individual involved, while he had lost the use of his legs he very obviously hadn't lost feeling in them.
Handicapped Badass: Many Paralympians can come across as this. Especially medal winners, especially in Judo and Fencing, which are the only martial arts in the Paralympics programme. Channel 4 in the UK has the coverage of the 2012 Paralympics, the promo for it is called "Meet the superhumans", the promo emphasises this by using Public Enemy's song "Harder Than You Think" as the soundtrack.
I Call It Sally: British track athelete Hannah Cockroft named her wheelchair as just callingit "the chair" was "boring".
I Have Many Names: Until the official canonization of the Paralympic name, there was no consistent brand for the games: Tel Aviv and Rome did call them the International Stoke Mandeville Games, but Tokyo had a logo calling them "Paralympic Tokyo", Toronto called them the "Torontolympiad", and Arnhen called them the "Olympics for the Disabled". Even though they were held after the IOC made the term official, the United States Olympic Committee (who, through the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, has exclusive rights to administer Olympics-related trademarks) blocked the use of the term "Paralympics", and forced them to be called the 1984 International Games for the Disabled.
And then, you also had the wildly differing emblems. The I.S.M.G. did have an emblem (resembling 3 wheelchair wheels linked together), but it was only really used twice. Then, the IPC went through about four different Paralympic emblems in just 20 years; starting with five tae-geuks arranged and coloured like the Olympic rings in 1984 ... until the IOC finally brought up concerns about its similarity in 1990. After rejecting a redesign with 6 tae-geuks arranged in a circle, it was simply reduced to 3 (coloured in red, green, and blue, and arranged in a triangle) for the 1994 Winter Paralympics, and then officially replaced by their current design (three arcs in red, green, and blue, representing the new Paralympic slogan "Spirit in Motion") in 2006.
Meaningful Name: While some may think that it refers to "paraplegia" (justifiable at first; when the term "Paralympic" was first used by Tokyo, the games were still only open to wheelchair athletes), the term "Paralympics" officially represents an event being held in parallel with the Olympic Games. With the increased IOC cooperation in recent games, this has become very accurate.
Required Spinoff Crossover: During a few Olympics, Paralympic events were held as demonstration events (particularly skiing during a few Winter Olympics, and wheelchair races at the Summer; this time, they were also open to able-bodied athletes)
Obvious Rule Patch: Able-bodied athletes are just as important to the Paralympics as they are to the Olympics, primarily playing the role of guides in tandem cycling and athletics for the visually impaired, and the goalkeeper in 5-a-side football. It wasn't until 2012 that these guides also received medals when their "team" struck Gold.
The "One city, one bid" strategy started to become prominent in 1988, when the Paralympics began to share their host city with the Olympics. It wasn't until 2000 that this actually became an official requirement in Olympic bids; hoping to ensure that Olympic organizing committees would also be responsible for the Paralympics as well.
Only a Flesh Wound: The UK's Channel 4 ran some promos for its coverage of the 2012 Paralympics. The one about Wheelchair Rugby, originally known as Murderball, starts with one player stating it's a contact sport and so you will get a few "little knocks" which the players talk about ranging from skinned elbows up to broken ribs, then Kylie Grimes states "I've already broken my neck, what more can I do".
Pintsized Powerhouse: Taken to its logical extreme in the events where athletes with Dwarfism take part.
Product Placement: Unlike the Olympics, venues and jerseys do have sponsor logos on them. Still the official ones, of course.
Product Displacement: Some British athletes at the 2012 games' opening ceremony had reportedly covered up logos for the IT company Atos on their ID passes, in connection to their health care division's controversial evaluation programs for workers requesting disability benefits. Other British political groups had planned out protests to coincide with the Paralympics on this fact alone.
Screwed by the Network: Some broadcasters don't give as much coverage of the Paralympics as others in comparison to the Olympics; especially if they're also being broadcast by the same network who only just finished airing the Olympics a few weeks prior. It really depends on the popularity of disability sport. Though it's gotten so bad in some regions that even IPC president Sir Phillip Craven has noticed, promising increased scrutiny for Paralympic broadcasters at future Games.
In America, NBC (as if they haven't taken enough slack from critics for its Olympics coverage) has received outright ridicule from viewers and athletes for its lack of Paralympics coverage: they go all out for the Olympics, but sweep the Paralympics under a rug. In fact, it was even speculated that NBC's refusal to provide decent Paralympic coverage was a factor that ruined New York City's bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympics. At said games (ultimately in London), NBC Sports Network could only muster 4 hours worth of tape-delayed highlight shows in total (not even the ceremonies!) throughout the 2012 Summer Paralympics. An hour and a half of highlights also aired on NBC... a week after the Games ended. Canada got it slightly better, but made it very hard to follow; the Ceremonies aired on same-night tape delay on TSN2 (followed by replays throughout the weekend on CTV and Citytv), and coverage was limited to highlight shows buried on TSN2, Sportsnet One, and sometimes CTV.
On the topic of CTV; at Vancouver's Winter Paralympics in 2010 they at least showed the opening ceremony live ... on their Vancouver station (tape-delayed to the following afternoon elsewhere), some Sledge Hockey matches (Team Canada games and the final), and the closing ceremonies live.
Network to the Rescue: The BBC (who had proclaimed itself The Olympic Broadcaster) dropped the Paralympics for 2012. But, along came a saviour: enter Channel 4, a network historically known for airing such perplexing fare as Queer as Folk, Big Brother, Countdown, and an anthology of Body Horror documentaries, picked up the Paralympics in 2012, aiming to give them the respect they deserve (as per the mandate that Channel 4 only acquire programming and not produce it, production was outsourced to IMG Media and Tinopolis). The result? Over 150 hours of live coverage, and a multi-million dollar advertising campaign to boot. Channel Four has planned to provide 48 hours worth of coverage from Sochi in 2014. It might not sound like much, but there are significantly fewer events at the Winter Parlympics in comparison.
NBC finally pledged to broadcast a decent amount of coverage beginning in 2014 (primarily on NBC Sports Network; though NBC aired the sledge hockey final live), and in a move that would make hell freeze over if it ever happened at an Olympics outside of the Americas, it aired the opening ceremony live (they had live programming commitments that night, but still). Ironically, CBC, while at least providing cohesive coverage that actually had a similar look and feel to its Olympics coverage, was the one turning the Paralympics into a tape delay festival like NBC usually does.
Sore Loser: Jody Cundy was disqualified from his Velodrome event at the London Paralympics He was notpleased. (NSFW for colourful language)
Oscar "Blade Runner" Pistorius didn't take defeat to Alan Oliveria very well either, claiming that Alan had adjusted his blades to give him extra height and an unfair advantage.
Spin-Off: Confusingly, the Paralympics are both a spin-off of the Olympics and the Stoke Mandeville Games.
The Stoke Mandeville Games continued on even after the advent of the first Paralympics, as governed by the International Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Sports Federation, which stayed to the original concept of being a multi-sport event for wheelchair athletes. The ISMWSF later merged with ISOD to become IWAS, while the Stoke Mandeville Games later became the World Wheelchair Games, and eventually the IWAS World Games. While IWAS is still headquartered in Stoke Mandeville, these Games have also been held elsewhere.
There are also the Parapan Am Games, which have been held since 1999, and since 2007, have also been held in the same city as the Pan Am Games. Conveniently, the first host city to do this, Rio, will host the Paralympics for real in 2016.
The IPC also organizes formal world championships outside of the Paralympics for several parasports, including athletics (as a parallel to the IAAF's World Championships in Athletics), aquatics, skiing, and sledge hockey.
The Tetris Effect: Taken literally in the Sochi closing ceremony, with two sequences paying tribute to the classic Russian falling block video puzzle game; one involved one of the most literal examples of Human Tetris, followed by a scene featuring a giant floating, glowing "impossible" sign built using Tetris pieces, and Alexey Chuvashev climbing a rope to kick a Z-block apostrophe into it to make it "i'm possible" (all of this to a remix of the Mission: Impossible theme, because why not),
Unnecessary Roughness: Wheelchair Basketball is meant to be a non-contact sport, the players seem to be largely unaware of this fact.
You Wanna Get Sued?: An official Paralympic emblem debuted for 1988, consisting of five bottom-halves of Taegeuks (the symbol from the South Korean flag, similar to the yin-yang) arranged in the same layout and colours of the Olympic rings. Unfortunately, the IOC didn't seem to be happy about it; even more significant was the fact that the Paralympics' organizers had become BFFs with the IOC, so they really had to be careful.