The Paralympic Games, How it All Started

In 1948, from the ashes of war and at the dawn of a new era, a German doctor came up with 
an idea that would evolve into what we know today as the Paralympic Games.

London hosted the first post-war Olympic Games, an occasion that served as an example of concord and friendship, turning a new page in world history. At an impressive ceremony on 29 July 1948, attended by 85,000 spectators and the British royal family, the Olympic flame was lit at Wembley Stadium in a positive, upbeat atmosphere. On the same day, not far from London, in the county town of Aylesbury at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, another ceremony was being held, with no pomp and no publicity. It was a very humble affair, but one which marked the birth of the Paralympic Games

There were just 16 competitors, 14 men and two women, all British veterans of World War II and all confined to wheelchairs. At these games, there was just one event, archery. The image of the amputees was a vivid testament to the horrors of war and, with memories still fresh all over the world, an institution was established which represented hopes for a better tomorrow. The idea for the sporting competition, which became known as the Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralyzed, is credited to Ludwig Guttmann, a German doctor of Jewish origin who had fled to England just before the start of the Second World War. Guttmann, it could be said, was to the Paralympic Games what Pierre de Coubertin was to the Olympics: their father and founder.

‘As the performance levels in Paralympic Games began to rise, some Paralympic athletes earned the right to participate also in the Olympics. So far, 14 athletes have made this “leap”.’

Four years later, the games were repeated, again at Aylesbury, this time with the participation of Dutch war veterans as well, making it the first international competition of its kind. As time passed, Guttmann’s initial idea was further developed and received growing support. The games became open not only to war veterans, but also to other athletes with different types of physical disabilities. In 1960, the first official Paralympic Games were held in Rome. By 1976, some 1,600 competitors from 40 countries took part. In 1988, it was decided that the Paralympics would thereafter be held in the same city that hosted the Olympic Games; one year later, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) was founded, with an operating framework that has changed very little since.   

As the Paralympic Games became more structured, performance levels began to rise and some Paralympic athletes earned the right to participate in the Olympics as well. So far, 14 athletes have made this “leap”, beginning with Neroli Fairhall, a Paralympic archer from New Zealand, who finished in 35th place in her event at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. But perhaps the best-known case is that of South African Oscar Pistorius. Dubbed “the fastest man in the world on no legs”, in 2012 in London he became the first runner without legs to compete in the Olympics. His subsequent conviction for the murder of his girlfriend brought the downfall of a legend, of a symbol of willpower and hope. But hope itself continues to characterize these athletes. One of the main aims of the Paralympic Games is “to inspire and excite the world”, according to the official vision statement of their organizers, the IPC.

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