Why they're called the "Paralympics" and other facts about the Paralympic Games

By Jane Rogers
A structure used as a sled. It has metal bars to support the legs and feet and a seat. Two wooden staffs that appear to be shortened hockey sticks are attached to either side.

Now that the 2016 Summer Olympic Games have come to a close, we can look forward to more gold-winning performances from Team USA at the Paralympic Games, held in Rio through September 18. This year's Paralympic Summer Games consist of 528 events in 23 sports with approximately 4,500 athletes with disabilities competing from more than 176 countries from around the globe.

A structure used as a sled. It has metal bars to support the legs and feet and a seat. Two wooden staffs that appear to be shortened hockey sticks are attached to either side.

A structure used as a sled. It has metal bars to support the legs and feet and a seat. Two wooden staffs that appear to be shortened hockey sticks are attached to either side.

The Paralympics came out of another event, the Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralyzed founded in 1948 by Sir Ludwig Guttmann. Guttmann was a neurologist who worked with veterans in England who were paralyzed. These Olympic-style events coincided with the opening of the 1948 Summer Olympic Games in London and gave athletes with spinal cord injuries the chance to compete. These first games involved an archery contest between 16 athletes. With the success of these first games, Guttmann decided to make this an annual event. The Paralympic movement was born.

Over the years, the formation of professional organizations dealing with the advancement of athletes with disabilities and technological advancements in equipment have allowed the Paralympic and Adaptive Sports movements to excel. Here are a few facts to think about while watching Team USA go for the gold!

  • The word "Paralympic" comes from the Greek para which means beside or alongside, illustrating that the Paralympic Games are the "parallel" games to the Olympics. Since the 1960 Summer Games in Rome, both games have been held within a few weeks of each other.

A navy athletic letterman jacket with gold sleeves. There is a patch on the right breast with a basketball on it and a patch shaped like the U.S. with "NWBA 1954 Champs." The jacket has "Ray" above the America patch.

  • The first Paralympic Games were held in 1960 after the Rome Summer Games, with 400 athletes from 23 countries participating in 57 events in eight sports. Ray Werner competed in wheelchair basketball at these Games.
  • The Paralympic Games were first open to athletes with spinal cord injuries in wheelchairs—until the 1976 Summer Games in Toronto, when amputee athletes and athletes who were blind or had low vision were allowed to compete.
  • The 1964 Tokyo Summer Games were the first to include the name "Paralympic" in written form, although the medals awarded to the athletes were inscribed "The Tokyo Games for the Physically Handicapped."
  • The 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, Korea, were the first to hold the Paralympics directly after the summer games, in the same host city and using the same facilities.
  • The first Paralympic Winter Games were held in Sweden in 1976 and included athletes from 16 countries competing in only two sports—alpine and cross-country skiing.

Two contraptions used as a prosthetic foot and socket for competition. The socket is black and looks like an upside down spring board with a metal piece protruding from the top. The prosthetic foot is tan in color and is wrapped with black and neon pink materials. There is a short pole extending from where an ankle would be.

  • Amy Purdy became the first double amputee to compete in snowboarding at the 2014 Sochi Paralympics, winning the bronze medal in snowboard cross.
  • Sled hockey was introduced as a demonstration sport at the 1976 Winter Paralympic Games in Sweden and became an official event at the 1994 Lillehammer Paralympics. The technological advancements in equipment have transformed the sport from its beginnings in the late 1960s.
  • Mascots have been an important part of the Paralympics Games since they were first introduced at the 1980 Arnhem Summer Games. A pair of squirrels, created by Necky Oprinsen of the Netherlands, was chosen as the winner among entrants in a contest held by a Dutch broadcasting company.
  • Athletes without disabilities compete in the Paralympics as sighted guides for athletes who are blind or have low vision. The athlete and guide are considered a team, and both are medal candidates. Usain Bolt trained as a guide for Terezinha Guilhermina, Brazil's three-time Paralympic sprinting champion, earlier in 2016.
  • The most decorated Paralympian is Trischa Zorn, who competed in the blind swimming events from 1980 to 2004 and won a total of 55 medals—41 of them gold.
  • Alana Nichols is the first American woman to win gold in both the summer and winter Paralympic Games, in alpine skiing and wheelchair basketball. She adds a third sport to her repertoire at the 2016 Rio games as she competes in paracanoe for the first time.

Please join me in watching the Paralympic games this summer!

Everyone Plays: Sports and Disability opens October 1, 2016.

Jane Rogers is an associate curator in the Division of Culture and the Arts.