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What are the Paralympic Games?

By Phil Shepley
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Paralympic Games, also called the Paralympics, are an international athletic competition for people who have physical disabilities. Originally a combination of the words "paraplegic" and "Olympic," the word "Paralympic" now is a combination of "parallel" and "Olympic" and refers to the fact that the games are held in the same years and at the same locations as the Olympic Games. Paralympic athletes are classified according to their physical disabilities, and they compete in against athletes with similar disabilities. As of 2012, the Paralympic Games included events in more than 20 different sports, some of which allowed athletes to use wheelchairs during competition.


In 1948 in Stoke Mandeville, England, Sir Ludwig Guttmann organized a sports competition that involved veterans of World War II who had spinal cord injuries. In 1952, competitors from the Netherlands joined the games. In Rome in 1960, the games were modeled after the Olympic Games and named the Paralympic Games. That year, the competition included 400 athletes from 23 countries.

In Toronto in 1976, people from different disability groups were added for the first time to the Paralympic Summer Games. Also that year, the Paralympic Winter Games were held in Örnsköldsvik, Sweden. By 2008, when the Summer Paralympics were held in Beijing, the games had grown to involve more than 4,200 athletes from 148 countries. Like the Olympics, the Summer and Winter Paralympics are each held every four years — always in even-numbered years — and alternate so that one is always held two years after the other.

International Paralympic Committee

Since 1988, the Summer and Winter Paralympic Games have been held at the same venues as the Olympic Games, following an agreement between the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). The IPC is responsible for organizing, supervising and coordinating the Paralympic Summer and Winter Games. The IPC’s stated mission is to enable disabled athletes to achieve excellence in sports and thereby "inspire and excite" other people around the world.


Paralympic athletes originally consisted only of those in wheelchairs. The disability classifications now include athletes who have visual impairments, those who have spinal injuries, those who have cerebral palsy and those who have had amputations or have at least one major part of an extremity or joint missing. There also is a classification called Les Autres, which is French for "the others." This classification includes physical disabilities that do not fall under the other classifications. Athletes in the Les Autres classification might compete against those in another classification in some sports, depending on their functional abilities.

Athletes who have intellectual disabilities that impair them in athletics did not compete in the Paralympics as of 2012. These athletes can compete in the Special Olympics, which are an event that is separate from the Paralympics. The Special Olympics Summer and Winter World Games also are held on an alternating basis, with each one occurring every four years, two years after the other, but they are held in odd-numbered years.


The summer events of the Paralympic Games include competitions in sports such as archery, volleyball, swimming, table tennis and athletics, which some people refer to as track and field. The summer games also include competitions in judo, cycling, soccer, shooting and other sports. Wheelchair events include basketball, tennis and rugby. Among the winter events of the Paralympic Games are alpine skiing, nordic skiing, ice sledge hockey and wheelchair curling. An ice sledge essentially is a small sled on which the athlete sits, and it slides across the ice as the athlete uses his or her hands to push off the ice.

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Discussion Comments

By Ana1234 — On May 23, 2014

@bythewell - It's going to be interesting to see what happens in the coming years when replacement body parts get to the point where Paralympian athletes are actually running faster than their counterparts in the Olympics. They already had that controversy with the so-called "Blade-runner" who had to show he didn't have an unfair advantage with his artificial limbs.

It might get to the point where we are watching a competition between scientists and engineers, rather than people. Which, admittedly, is already the case in a lot of sports.

By bythewell — On May 22, 2014

@browncoat - All I can remember from the last one was the paralympic games opening ceremony, which was pretty interesting. But I don't think my local channels covered much more than that and maybe some highlights.

You do have to be careful not to boil people down to a cutesy story though. I remember reading a made up story once about how a bunch of Paralympian athletes were accidentally tripped during a race and how they all helped each other up and crossed the finish line together.

That might sound like a heart warming story, but these are real competitions and real athletes who have been training for years to get to this point. Trying to force them into situations where they choose love over competition or something like that is really patronizing.

By browncoat — On May 21, 2014

I wish these games had more coverage and status compared to the traditional Olympic games. I mean, it's always nice when someone from your country wins a medal, but what I enjoy even more is the story of someone struggling through severe opposition to become a champion, no matter where they are from. Just about every Paralympian would have a story like that, while many Olympians seem to be relatively well off financially and kind of out of touch of the real world.

I actually don't really care about how much of a second was shaved off a world record. I'd rather hear about the people.

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