Jerome Monahan examines the origins and history of the parallel Olympics for disabled athletes
Get set, go
The title Paralympic Games has been in official use, with the approval of the International Olympics Committee, only since 1984. But associated events predate this by some 24 years, under the title of International Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralysed. The following timeline features only the summer games since 1960, although there have also been seven winter games in this period.
1960 The International Stoke Mandeville Games in Rome are attended by 400 athletes from 21 countries. Pope John XXIII congratulates the participants for proving "what energetic souls can achieve".
1964 The Tokyo Games are attended by 390 wheelchair athletes from 21 nations.
1968 Israel takes on Games when the authorities in Mexico City decide they cannot host them as well as the main Olympics. A record 750 wheelchair athletes from 29 countries take part.
1972 Heidelberg agrees to host the Games while Munich is the main Olympic city.
1976 Now the Games are held in Toronto rather than Montreal, which hosts the main Olympics. For the first time, blind, partially sighted and amputee athletes take part, as well as paraplegic and tetraplegic athletes. 1980 Now called "the Olympics for the Disabled", the Games in Arnheim are marred by the recent death of Sir Ludwig Guttman and continuing controversy concerning athletes from South Africa. 2,500 athletes from 42 countries attend.
1984 The Games in this Olympic were scheduled to take place in two American venues, but not Los Angeles, the official Olympic city. The events in New York go ahead, but the wheelchair games set for Champaign, Illinois, run into last-minute funding problems and have to be held at Stoke Mandeville in the UK.
1988 The Seoul Paralympic Games were the first held under auspices of the International Co-ordinating Committee. A 1,316-unit Paralympic village is built, including 14-storied apartment buildings, complete with wheelchair ramps to access every floor. 75,000 people attend the opening ceremony.
1992 The Barcelona games are considered the best to date. At the opening ceremony, the Paralympic torch is carried around the main stadium by a succession of disabled athletes, and then fired by an archer to ignite the main flame. The UK comes third in the medal table to the USA and Germany.
More than two million spectators see the events. A separate Paralympic Games for athletes with mental disabilities takes place in Madrid.
1996 Atalanta Paralympic Games are not regarded with much affection by many participants. The same transport problems that dogged the main games made life more difficult still for disabled athletes and the Olympic village was also inadequately designed for wheelchair users. The US again topped the results league with 157 medals. The UK come fourth with 122 medals.
2000 Sydney Paralympic Games - one of the best, thanks to the superb facilities and record attendance figures for most events. A tremendous event for UK athletes. Britain came second in the table with 41 gold and 131 medals overall, compared with Australia's 63 gold and 143-medal tally.
Four thousand athletes participated from 125 countries.
Noa-5 he razzmatazz is not over. On September 17, Athens will stage another opening ceremony, this time for the Paralympics. The city will welcome more than 4,000 athletes with disabilities from some 130 countries. They will compete in 17 sports, with the 170-strong UK team going for glory in most of them, fresh from a period of acclimatisation in Cyprus. The participants will perform in the same venues enjoyed by their able-bodied compatriots and will stay in the same Olympic village, designed to anticipate their needs. And for the first time, we will be able to follow their progress thanks to daily, often live, broadcasts on BBC TV and radio.
What a far cry this is from the Paralympic movement's beginnings on the lawns of Stoke Mandeville hospital in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, in 1948, when 20 spinal injury patients took part in archery competitions, firing arrows at an enlarged dart board. The event was timed to coincide with the Olympics then underway in London. (From the beginning the word "Paralympics" has been derived from "parallel" rather than "paralysed").
Active pursuits for those with paraplegic and quadraplegic conditions was a revolutionary idea at a time when the usual care involved encasing them in plaster and leaving them to fester - treatment that was often a death sentence. This hopeless approach was not for neurologist and neurosurgeon Ludwig Guttmann, who arrived at Stoke Mandeville in 1939, when its beds were filling up with young war-injured men and women. A German Jew, Guttman had only just managed to escape with his family from the Nazi regime. He had a simple philosophy: to enable his patients to return to society as "taxpayers", with their sense of worth restored. He recognised that sport could play a key role in helping patients rebuild their self-esteem.
The Stoke Mandeville games grew in size. In 1949, as well as the home players, there were teams from five other hospitals, including a group of Polish patients. In 1952, the games went international when a small contingent of Dutch athletes took part. By 1957, 13 nations were represented, including Australia and Argentina. Only three years later, and the Stoke Mandeville initiative would truly come of age, with the event travelling to the 1960 Olympics in Rome. This established the Paralympic ideal of disability sports replicating the main event in the same year and city in which they were being hosted.
This aim has only recently become the norm, but the Paralympics have continued to grow in prestige and impact. One perhaps negative proof of this is the extent to which the Paralympics - so named officially only in 1984 - have fallen foul of controversies that have mired their parallel competition. In 1976, and again in 1980, troubles erupted due to the inclusion of disabled athletes from apartheid South Africa, then subject to a condemnatory United Nations resolution and a ban by the main Olympic Games. In 1988 in Seoul, an IranIsrael goalball fixture (goalball is a special Paralympic sport - see page 11) hit the headlines when the Iranian team refused to play against Israel. Also, as the stakes have increased, so have the temptations to cheat. One of the worst examples occurred in Sydney, at the most successful Paralympics ever, when it was discovered that all but two members of a medal-winning "intellectually disabled" Spanish basketball team were in fact without special needs.
The presence of athletes, deserving or otherwise of such classification, is indicative of another Paralympic trend, that of a gradual broadening of the categories of people entitled to take part. In the early days of the Stoke Mandeville Games, participation was reserved to wheelchair-using athletes.
The Toronto Games, in 1976, were the first to allow blind and partially sighted athletes to compete. Today, there are six categories of participant - amputees; those with cerebral palsy; people with intellectual disability; wheelchair needs; vision impairment; and les autres. This final category refers to athletes with a broad range of conditions, including dwarfism.
In order to ensure maximum possible fairness within all Paralympic sports there is a range of classifications which define individuals' capacities still further. It was once the case that the Games proceeded amid a flurry of medical checks and evaluations, but, with greater professionalism internationally, the vast majority of participants will arrive with their status already defined, thanks to regular home checks designed to catch any deterioration or improvement in their condition sufficient to warrant a change of category.
In equestrian events, for example, there are four grades. Sixteen-year-old Sophie Christianson, taking part in her first Olympics in Athens, has cerebral palsy. "I am classified a Grade IA, which means I have the most severe level of disability," she says. "So I take part in dressage competition involving my horse performing various walk exercises." For swimmers there are more categories, with freestyle specialists being classified from S1 (most disabled ) to S10 (physical disability); S11-S13 (visual impairment); and S14 (intellectual impairment). By contrast, in those sports that are the most straightforward - judo and powerlifting - participants are defined by weight alone, and in sailing, a multi-sensory sport, mixed-disability crews are allowed, ranked according to a point system determined by their collective capacity.
Category complications have been one factor in discouraging broadcasters from giving more transmission time to disability sport generally, including previous Paralympics events. It is easy to understand why it might be confusing to the uninitiated that a single event can have multiple finals and multiple medal winners. Despite this, there is a history of modest but growing media interest in the Paralympics, though inclusion has been invariably marginal in the schedules. "My gold-winning performance in Sydney was filmed," says BC2 category Boccia player Nigel Murray. "Sadly, it was caught by a freelance film crew and wiped before I or anyone saw it." Happily, this year any success of his should enjoy the attention it deserves, because the BBC is committed to providing at least two hours of early evening TV coverage and even more radio time.
"It is a reflection of the increasing success of our disabled athletes," says Dave Gordon, the corporation's head of major sporting events. "The Sydney Paralympics were very good for our athletes - we came second only to Australia overall - and winning a hatful of medals certainly made it easier to argue for an even greater slice of the schedule this time."
The TV coverage will amount in all to about 25 hours compared to 250 hours given to the main Olympics, but it will look equally sophisticated, with multi-camera broadcasting and hosting by popular sports commentators. "Our commitment," says Dave Gordon, "is a reflection of the increasing awareness of the elite nature of the sports themselves, requiring every bit as much dedication and focus from athletes as that required in the main Olympic events."
This professionalism is more pronounced in view of the relative lack of commercial sponsorship that can be expected by disabled athletes. Earlier this summer, there was a brief spat when it emerged that Adidas was offering only a cut-price kit deal to this year's Paralympians while supplying the main Olympic team free. For individual athletes the pickings are even slimmer, with the kind of support they rely on amounting often only to preferential access to local sports facilities.
But there is considerably more financial support available for top disability athletes, thanks to the World Class Performance Programme, which channels funds from the National Lottery through UK Sport, and out to athletes though their professional sports associations. Anyone in the top 20 world rankings is eligible. The money directed through associations often ends up as "in kind" support, subsidising athletes' access to world-class coaches or specialist sports science or medical practitioners.
Direct means-tested subsistence funding is also available.
However, the relationship between such support and continuing Paralympic success means the pressures on athletes to return from Athens covered in glory is even more intense. Talk to any of this year's British team and they will soon turn to the subject of the need to win medals. "The standards we set our athletes, particularly in track events, are becoming quite extraordinary," explains distance runner and multiple gold medallist Noel Thatcher.
Any sense of disability sport being the stuff of quirky exhibition alone has long since been dispelled, thanks in part to the enormous attendance figures in Barcelona (albeit the tickets were free), and in Sydney, where even the most obscure fixtures attracted sell-out numbers. Meanwhile, the suggestion that she and her fellow Paralympians are anything other than elite sportspeople drives Sophie Christianson wild: "Anyone suggesting such a thing is talking rubbish. We are real athletes who make huge commitments to our sports."
* The Paralympics runs from September 17-28. For the first time ever, live action will be broadcast on BBC2
Athens - the official seventh Paralympic Games website: www.athens2004.comenParalympicGamesparalympic
British Paralympics Association: www.paralympics.org.uk
The British team:
British Team Logo
Disability Sport (part of the BBC Sport website)
http:news.bbc.co.uksport1hiother_sportsdisability_sportdefault.stm A-Z of Paralympic classification
International Paralympic Committee: www.paralympic.orgdefault.asp
Stoke Mandeville - Road to the Paralympics by Joan Scruton is published by Peterhouse Press
Noel Thatcher is a veteran of five Paralympics and a record of winning medals at all of them. He emerged from Sydney with gold in the 5,000m and bronze in the 10,000m. He is partially sighted and needs to run on stretches of road with which he is entirely familiar. Even then hazards occur, such as when a local council decided to create a big hole and he fell straight into it at full tilt. Finding himself unhurt, he admitted his predicament was hilarious. This year, Noel will carry the Union Jack in the opening ceremony after a vote by the Athens Paralympic squad.
Sophie Christianson is 16, and this will be her first Paralympics. She will be riding a borrowed horse called Hot Stuff. She got the riding bug thanks to her local Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA), and is full of praise for the way they built up her confidence on more experienced horses, preparing her for the younger animals she will ride in competition. "Going to Athens is a dream come true," she says.
Anthony Stephens is a swimmer, and is also facing his first Paralympics. He has two artificial legs, having been born with disabilities in three limbs due to phocomelia. His performance in recent world championships saw him holding his own against Sebastian Rodrigues of Spain, one of the key men he needs to beat in Athens. "The Chinese may also be a challenge," he says.
"They do not come to international competitions and so are a unknown quantity."
Nigel Murray thinks he may face his strongest challenge from members of the Spanish or Portugese boccia teams. He carried off individual gold in the C2 category - the first UK sportsman to achieve individual gold in this sport.
"In every way our games are the parallel of the main Olympics," he says.
"It is all about people who have a love of and total commitment to their sport. The desire to compete and win has never been hotter."
* Boccia is a competitive sport that is played by individuals, pairs or teams of three. It is a sport for wheelchair users with locomotor disabilities such as cerebral palsy. Boccia matches are held on specially marked courts in indoor halls. The players aim to throw their coloured leather balls, which may be red or blue, as close as they can to a white target ball, called the "jack".
* Goalball is an exclusively Paralympic sport. It is a team sport in which only blind athletes and athletes with vision impairment can participate. It requires technical skills, strength, speed, quick reflexes, team spirit, flexibility and orientation skills. Goalball started in Austria in 1946 as a method of rehabilitation for blind war veterans. It is considered to be one of the most popular Paralympic sports, being played in more than 112 countries around the world.