They have all sorts of stories. Some have lived their whole lives with disabilities; some were in accidents that led to their disabilities. One thing they all have in common, however, is the potential to stand atop a podium and have a gold medal placed around their necks.
These are the Paralympians. Less well-known, perhaps, than those who compete in the Olympic games of the able-bodied, but just as courageous and dedicated to perfecting their physical performance as any of those athletes. But some can’t do it without a little nonbiological assistance, so we’re going to look closer at some of the prosthetic equipment they use. First, though, a history of the movement.
Athletic events for people with physical impairments have been hosted for more than a century, but on a smaller scale, unlike the Paralympics that occur today. Following World War II, huge numbers of veterans returned to their homes with grievous injuries. Beginning in England, Dr. Ludwig Guttmann started using sport as a means of rehabilitation. From there, athletics for the disabled grew to be a recreational activity, and, eventually, evolved into what we traditionally think of as competitive sport.
From the small competition Guttmann dubbed the Stoke Mandeville Games in 1948 (held in tandem with the London Olympics that took place that same year), the Paralympic movement expanded rapidly, and the first official summer games took place in Rome in 1960. They featured 400 athletes proudly representing 23 nations [source: International Paralympic Committee]. In 1976, the inaugural winter games took place, and in 1988, the Paralympics started being hosted by the same city hosting the Olympics.
As of 2012, the Paralympics include participants with one of 10 disabilities [source: International Paralympic Committee]:
- Limb deficiency
- Impaired passive range of motion
- Impaired muscle power
- Differences in leg length
- Small stature
- Vision impairment
- Intellectual impairment
- Hypertonia, or a marked increase in muscle tension and a decreased ability to stretch that muscle
- Ataxia, or inability to direct voluntary muscle movements
- [b}Athetosis, or mild to severe motor dysfunction
Before competitions kick off, Paralympic organizers determine which athletes are eligible for which events and group them by the extent of their specific impairments. Athletes who are eligible to compete in basketball and tennis, for example, include people who use a wheelchair or those who have had an amputation. Athletes who are visually disabled are the only segment allowed to compete at goalball, a popular Paralympic sport that’s sort of a cross between soccer and bowling.