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How Did the Paralympics Get Their Start?

The Paralympics emerged from a small gathering of WWII veterans in 1948, aiming to rehabilitate through sport. What began as an innovative approach to recovery has evolved into a global movement celebrating the athletic prowess of individuals with disabilities. How did this transformation occur, and what milestones have defined the Paralympics' journey? Join us as we uncover the inspiring history behind the games.

It's always heartening to see something great grow out of a difficult time and situation. One such story is the birth of the Paralympics, the international sports competition among athletes with a range of disabilities. The games had humble beginnings, with a small group of injured World War II veterans at Stoke Mandeville Hospital's Spinal Injuries Unit in Buckinghamshire, England.

The head of the unit, Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, a German-Jewish neurologist who had escaped from the Nazis before the war, recognized how important movement was for rehabilitating the veterans. Guttmann began experimenting with simple games using a ball, then advanced to wheelchair polo, darts, archery, and even basketball.

The Paralympics originated at Stoke Mandeville Hospital’s Spinal Injuries Unit, as a way to rehabilitate WWII veterans.
The Paralympics originated at Stoke Mandeville Hospital’s Spinal Injuries Unit, as a way to rehabilitate WWII veterans.

It was 1948, and it just so happened that London was hosting the Summer Olympics that year. Guttmann saw the opportunity to create a similar ("parallel") competition, calling his contest the 1948 International Wheelchair Games. Six years later, the games included competitors from 14 nations, and they continued to grow from there. In 2021, the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo welcomed around 4,500 athletes from 163 countries, competing in 22 different sports.

The power of the Paralympics:

  • The Paralympics are symbolized by three "agitos;" the word "agito" means "I move" in Latin.

  • The 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, reached a record 4.1 billion TV viewers.

  • Long before the Paralympics existed, track and field athlete Ray Ewry survived childhood polio. He won eight gold medals at the 1900, 1904, and 1908 Olympic Games.

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    • The Paralympics originated at Stoke Mandeville Hospital’s Spinal Injuries Unit, as a way to rehabilitate WWII veterans.
      The Paralympics originated at Stoke Mandeville Hospital’s Spinal Injuries Unit, as a way to rehabilitate WWII veterans.