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Superhumans in Rio – The 2016 Paralympic Games

This week marks the close of the Rio 2016 Paralympic games and another great year for sport, with the athletes in team GB taking home a total of 64 gold medals – the most by a British team since 1988.

Despite the buzz around this year’s Paralympic Games, many people are still unsure about how they began, how the sports have been modified for disabled players and even how able the athletes have to be to compete. At a time when phrases such as “disability confidence” are popular in the media, it is more important than ever to have a good understanding of events like the Paralympic Games. As with most things in life, awareness is key!

Let the Games begin!

On July 28 1948, the same day as the London Olympic Games were being held at Wembley, the first athletic competition for people with a physical disability was held. 

Dr Ludwig Guttmann, a physician at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury instigated the games as a way of helping paraplegic servicemen and women to recover from their injuries in the aftermath of WWI. 

At the time, it was believed that there was no hope for the rehabilitation of those with physical disabilities or mental illnesses/impairments. Dr Guttmann disagreed. That day, 14 injured servicemen and 2 women competed against each other in an archery contest, proving that mind over matter is the first step towards recuperation. 

This event, held annually at first, came to be known as the Stoke Mandeville Games and are seen as the forerunner of the Paralympics. By 1954, the Games featured disabled sports people from all over the world including Holland, Finland, Canada, Australia, Egypt and Israel. 

In 1960, the Stoke Mandeville Games (or Paralympiad Games as they later became known) took place internationally for the first time. Within a week of the closing ceremony for the Rome 1960 Olympics, disabled athletes from all over the world were arriving to compete for their own major sporting event. Dr Guttman’s dream of reintegration was becoming a reality.  

Who can be a Paralympian?

Initially, the Paralympic Games only featured athletes with spinal cord injuries. However, in 1976 two new categories were added - athletes who were amputees and athletes with a visual impairment. According to LBC the categories for this year’s Games included: 

Amputee: Athletes with a partial or total loss of at least one limb.

Cerebral Palsy: Athletes with non-progressive brain damage, for example cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, stroke or similar disabilities affecting muscle control, balance or coordination.

Intellectual Disability:
Athletes with a significant impairment in intellectual functioning and associated limitations in adaptive behaviour.

Wheelchair: Athletes with spinal cord injuries and other disabilities that require them to compete in a wheelchair.

Visually Impaired: Athletes with visual impairment ranging from partial vision, sufficient to be judged legally blind, to total blindness. The athlete and their sighted guides are considered a team and both can win medals.

Les Autres:
Athletes with a physical disability that does not fall strictly under one of the other five categories, such as dwarfism, multiple sclerosis or congenital deformities of the limbs such as that caused by thalidomide.

Spot the difference!

The majority of sports featured in the Paralympics are modified versions of Olympic sports, take wheelchair Rugby - dubbed Murderball because of the violence of the tackles - as an example. 

As well as including familiar sports, such as Rugby, Archery and Athletics, the Paralympics also have two original sports: Boccia and Goalball. 

Boccia, which is believed to have origins in ancient Greece, is played by both visually and physically impaired athletes in a wheelchair. Using coloured balls, a different colour for each team, the athletes must get their ball as close to the “jack” or white ball as possible. Teams are mixed-gender, and depending on the level of disability, the athlete can even have an assistant who will pass them the ball or steady their wheelchair if required. 

Created to assist in the rehabilitation of veterans with a visual impairment, Goalball made its official debut in the 1976 Paralympic Games. Played blindfolded in order to ensure fairness, each team must score goals with either low level throws or bouncing the ball in specific areas. The Goalball has bells in it, which enables the players to establish its location. As a result, absolute silence must be maintained by the audience during the game so that the players can hear the ball and the commands of the 11 referees monitoring the gameplay. Playing this game requires strength as well as precision, since the ball weighs 1.25kg!

Click here for a list of all the other sports played in this year’s Paralympics. 

In the news

The sporting world is no stranger to controversy, and the Paralympics are no different. Here are some stories from the 2016 Games!

Superhuman advertising
Channel 4’s “We’re the Superhumans” trailer for the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games has already galvanised millions of people, both able and disabled, into being more open about disability. With over 6,778,097 YouTube views, the ad definitely created buzz. 

People with disabilities were represented on screen as well as off, with 20 members of disabled production staff and 21 disabled presenters making their mark on British television.

Founded by Marketing Director for the 2012 Games, Greg Nugent, the #FillTheSeats campaign originally aimed to raise $15,000 to send 500 young people to the Paralympics. 
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