Blog post

Histories of the Paralympic Games

Evolution of the games for athletes with disabilities

black and white photograph, wheelchair user athletes parading in a stadium in front of large crowd
by
Adrian Murphy (opens in new window) (Europeana Foundation)

The Paralympic Games now take place every four years, hosted in the same cities as the Olympic Games. These games - for athletes with disabilities - take their name from the Greek word παρά, pará, meaning 'beside' or 'alongside', referring to their status alongside the Olympic Games.

While the history of the modern Olympic Games stretches back to the 19th century, the Paralympic Games (and the disability sports competitions they developed from) are rooted in the mid-20th century.

Let's take a look at moments from the Paralympic Games' histories across Europe, illustrated by objects from cultural heritage collections.

Stoke Mandeville

The Paralympic Games developed from sports competitions which were first held in the United Kingdom in 1948.

black and white photograph, two athletes who are wheelchair users are throwing javelins while judges and other spectators watch

Jewish-German born Dr. Ludwig Guttmann of Stoke Mandeville Hospital hosted a sports competition for British World War II veteran patients with spinal cord injuries. 16 atheletes - 14 men and 2 women - took part.

The event took place on the same day as the opening of the 1948 Olympic Games in London. The event was repeated each year thereafter.

By 1952, the event had become international with Dutch participants joining the British athletes.

These games continued each year, known as the International Stoke Mandeville Games. From 1997, the games became the 'World Wheelchair Games'. In 2005, they were re-named 'World Wheelchair and Amputee Games', and 'International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports (IWAS) World Games' from 2009.

Rome

By 1960, the ninth Stoke Mandeville Games became the first official Paralympic Games. Initially only athletes who used wheelchairs took part, with 400 athletes from 23 countries taking part in 57 events in 8 sports. The Games followed the Rome Olympics and used same venues.

black and white photograph, group of athletes who are wheelchair users, one young man holds a French flag, a sign with word FRANCIA is attached to his wheelchair
black and white photograph, athletes who are wheelchair users parading on track of a stadium
black and white photograph, several men who are wheelchair users, two of them are shaking hands
black and white photograph, group of people on a stage watching while Ludwig Guttmann gives a speech

Tel Aviv

The 1964 Paralympic Games were held in Tokyo, alongside the Olympic Games. In 1968, however, the Paralympics were not held in Mexico, alongside the Olympic Games.

Instead, the 3rd Paralympic Games were held in Tel Aviv, Israel in November 1968. 750 athletes from 29 countries took part in 181 events in 10 different sports.

black and white photograph, a wheelchair user athlete throwing a shotput
black and white photograph, wheelchair user athletes parading in a stadium in front of large crowd
black and white photograph, a team of wheelchair user athletes in front of an Israeli Airlines plane at an airport
black and white photograph, two wheelchair user athletes in fencing costumes are fencing

Örnsköldsvik

The first Winter Paralympic Games were held in 1976 in Örnsköldsvik, Sweden. These were the first Paralympics in which multiple categories of athletes with disabilities could compete.

mostly blue and yellow poster with a circle design showing graphics of skiers, and headline text 'Winter Olympic Games for the disabled'

Arnhem

The 6th Summer Paralympics took place in Arnhem in the Netherlands in 1980. The Soviet Union - who hosted the Olympic Games that year - had issued a statement denying the existence of any disabled people in their country.

1973 athletes from 42 countries took part in 489 events in 12 sports, with 12,000 people attending the opening ceremony.

poster with stylised Dutch flag and a circular knot-liek design, the headline text reads 'Olympics for the Disabled'
front and back of a medal with stylised wheelchair user athlete figures

London

From the late 20th century onwards, the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games have been hosted in the same city and country, sharing the same sport facilities.

The 2012 London Paralympics was one of the largest multi-sport events ever held in the UK and the largest Paralympics ever. One of the two mascots for the games was named Mandeville, paying tribute to the hospital which had decades earlier laid the foundation of the Paralympic Games movement.

blue and grey soft toy character with one large eye, wearing a t-shirt with word Mandeville

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This blog is part of the Europeana Sport project which showcases cultural treasures relating to sporting heritage in Europe.

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