Armless swimmers, legless runners and sightless footballers are among the thousands of athletes who will meet in Rio this week. Who are they, and what are they competing for?
What are the Paralympics?
An international competition covering a range of sports in which the participants all have a disability. It takes place in the weeks after each Summer and Winter Olympics.
The Rio Paralympics began on Wednesday, and will run until Sunday 18th. In that time, 4,350 athletes from 165 countries will compete in 22 sports.
When did they begin?
In 1944 Ludwig Guttmann, a German doctor who had fled the Nazis, opened a spinal ward in London for victims of the second world war. Confident that sports could do wonders for the health and self-esteem of paraplegics, he organised an archery contest for them to coincide with the opening of the 1948 London Olympics.
A success, it grew over the years. The first official Paralympics, as they came to be known, were held after the 1960 Rome Olympics.
Who can take part?
Athletes with certain visual, physical or intellectual impairments. They are classed according to the type and severity of their disability – a bit like how some Olympians are categorised by age or weight.
How Paralympians’ class determines who they compete against depends on the sport. In some, such as running, athletes with a similar level of impairment are grouped together. In others, such as field events, the severity of the athlete’s disability is factored into their score. Others again, such as goalball, are only open to one type of disability.
How are the athletes classified?
Their medical records are consulted. At the same time, experts – such as optometrists for the blind – are called on to evaluate their performance.
In each country, a national sports committee is in charge of classifications; the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) then double-checks them.
Is that not open to abuse?
The system has been heavily criticised in the run-up to Rio. Athletes and experts have accused some competitors of exaggerating their disability in order to compete in ‘easier’ classes; British Paralympian Bethany Woodward has withdrawn from the games in protest.
Both the IPC and UK Athletics, which oversees the classification of UK athletes, insist that there is no evidence for this. Nevertheless, UK Athletics has promised to review its procedures after Rio.
Other than that, is Rio going smoothly?
Not entirely. By August, only 12% of tickets had been sold. The organisers, further hampered by Brazil’s economic woes, responded by cutting funding for the games. Staff were culled, stadiums were downsized and crucial travel grants for competitors were delayed.
‘Never before in the 56-year history of the Paralympic Games have we faced circumstances like this,’ lamented IPC president Philip Craven.
Why so few sales?
A range of factors have been identified, from high ticket prices to Brazilians’ lack of interest in athletics, which may help explain why sales for the Olympics were also poor.
Some go further, blaming the organisers for failing to promote the Paralympics as heavily as the Olympics – in contrast to London 2012, where the two were treated as equal. Former Paralympian Tanni Grey-Thompson fears that disabled athletes are being treated as ‘second-class citizens’ in Rio.
Do the Paralympics actually change attitudes?
To some extent. In a poll taken after the London Paralympics, 81% of respondents felt that they had transformed perceptions of the disabled for the better. But another survey conducted a year later showed that the same percentage of disabled people had not noticed any difference.
Real change, argues Grey-Thompson, comes from political campaigns and equality laws. ‘The Paralympics can help drive that change.’
- Watch the first two videos in Become An Expert. Is it wrong to describe Paralympians as ’inspirational’ and ‘superhuman’?
- Watch the video on goalball in Become An Expert. Then come up with a new sport that caters to a specific disability. Write down the rules of the game, with diagrams if necessary.
- The word was initially coined by combining ‘paraplegic’ with ‘Olympics’. After the Paralympics were opened to non-paraplegics, organisers came up with a new explanation: ‘para-’, which means ‘beside’ in Greek, signifies that the Paralympics are held alongside the Olympics.
- A team sport in which all the players are blind. The ball contains bells which emit sound as they move.
- The Spanish basketball team was stripped of its gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics after some of its members were found to have cheated at the classification stage. The Paralympics have seen other forms of cheating too: this year, the entire Russian team is banned as a result of state-sponsored doping.
- A campaign, #FillTheSeats, was subsequently launched to buy tickets for Brazilian children. At the time of writing, it has raised over $200,000. With help from the campaign, ticket sales are picking up.
- Tanni Grey-Thompson
- With her eleven golds, the wheelchair racer is one of the UK’s most successful Paralympians.
- By Ipsos Mori.
- By disability charity Scope.