Paralympics: a history of sporting achievement

In 1948, Dr Ludwig Guttmann, a neurologist at Stoke Mandeville hospital in Buckinghamshire, launched the forerunner of the Paralympic Games. He believed sport was vital to the recovery of war veterans injured in World War Two and organised a competition to coincide with the 1948 London Olympics.

Since the 1988 games in Seoul, Paralympics have taken place at the same venues as the Olympics. In today’s competitions a classification system operates, similar to that used in boxing, where athletes are grouped according to their functional ability. There are five groups: amputee, cerebral palsy, visual impairment, spinal cord injuries and other disabilities (“les autres”). These groupings aim to ensure fair competition between athletes with similar degrees of disability.

At the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, Britain achieved the second highest number of gold medals, 35. This year the British squad hopes to improve on this with 205 athletes competing in 18 of the 20 sports.

Drugs and Dishonesty

But as with other sporting competitions, the Paralympics are open to cheating. At the Sydney games in 2000, the Spanish basketball team won gold in a competition for athletes with intellectual disabilities. Ten of the 12-man squad were later found to have no disabilities. As a result, the International Paralympic Committee suspended the category of “athletes with an intellectual disability” – a decision that learning disability charities, such as Mencap, hope will be overturned in time for the London 2012 Paralympics.

Paralympic organisers share the Olympic movement’s fight against drugs, but face additional problems such as “boosting” – a practice where athletes with spinal cord injuries attempt to stimulate their bodies by sitting on pins or ball bearings. While they will feel no pain, their nervous system reacts and increases their blood pressure. Boosting to improve performance, like doping, is illegal in competition.

One of Britain’s best-known wheelchair racers, Daniel Sadler, was banned from competitions in 2002 when it was discovered that he was not disabled. He protested, saying that he had never claimed to have a disability. Although banned by the International Paralympic Committee, some disabled athletes defended Sadler as they felt he had no obvious advantage over disabled competitors.

Promoting sport

The Olympics aim to leave a legacy for the host country. The Paralympics are no different, but in this case the focus will be on promoting disability sport and improved physical access to public buildings.

In the run-up to the 2012 London Paralympics, the “Inclusive and Active” strategy has been developed to help local authorities increase opportunities for disabled people to participate in sport and physical activity.

Having signed up to the strategy, the London Borough of Southwark is hoping to build on its existing range of sports activities for disabled people, which includes specialist coaches for football, gymnastics, swimming, sailing and tennis. Southwark also plans to start work on a coaching ­programme to train disabled adults as qualified coaches.

Glyn Newberry, a sports development officer for Southwark, coaches the Millwall disabilities football team. He says: “The team has a wide range of disabilities, including spinal problems, cerebral palsy, deafness, epilepsy and behavioural issues. None prevents them playing superb football. They love coming here, whatever the weather. We hope to increase the rate of participation for people with disabilities. And, who knows, some of the young people we encourage today may be our Paralympians of the future.”

Britain’s Medal Hopes

● Sarah Storey, cyclist (pictured)

Former Paralympic swimmer Sarah Storey will be cycling in Beijing, her fifth Paralympic Games. Her preparation involves a gruelling training regime: “Between now and Beijing I will be racing every Wednesday evening at local club 10-mile road time trial events. My training schedule also includes two or three track sessions a week, as well as two or three road rides of about 80km,” says Storey. “I hope to bring home medals in my pursuit and road time trial.”

● Simon Munn, wheelchair basketball player

Simon Munn, 40, will also be travelling to his fifth games as the veteran of the men’s wheelchair basketball team. He says: “My career highlight was winning silver in Atlanta. Getting the bronze in Athens [in 2004] was just as good though because, although it was a step down, the standard has come along a lot since then.”

● Josie Pearson, wheelchair rugby player

Wheelchair rugby is perhaps the most aggressive Paralympic event, but this has not deterred Josie Pearson, who will make history by becoming the first woman to represent Britain at the sport. Pearson remains unfazed being the lone female in the team: “To be the first female ever selected for the Paralympic GB rugby team is a real honour. I don’t feel any different for being the only female in the sport because when you get on court you have a role to play and you’re so focused on what you’re doing, nothing else matters.”

Events to watch out for

10 facts on paralympics

● Boccia

Boccia evolved from an ancient Greek ball game and became a Paralympic sport at the 1992 Barcelona games. Men and women compete together in teams or in individual events. The aim is to throw leather balls as close as possible to the jack, a white target ball.

● Cycling

Cycling is a relatively new discipline for disabled athletes. Blind or visually impaired cyclists compete on tandem bicycles with a sighted team-mate. Amputees and riders with other permanent disabilities use standard racing bicycles, but specific adaptations are permitted to improve safety.

● Swimming

Swimmers compete in freestyle, backstroke, butterfly, breaststroke, individual medley and relay using a variety of starting positions – in the water, a sitting dive or a standing start. South African swimmer Natalie Du Toit, a former Paralympic competitor, hopes to become the first amputee to gain a medal at the summer Olympics 10k open water swimming event.

● Wheelchair basketball

Teams are comprised of five players and seven substitutes. A player is not allowed to touch the playing surface with his or her feet while in possession of the ball. As in able-bodied basketball, players must bounce the ball when moving with it.

● Wheelchair rugby

Wheelchair rugby was invented in the 1970s in Canada by people who had become quadriplegics as a result of spinal cord injuries. Collisions are frequent in this explosive game, originally known as murderball, as players try to stop their opponents crossing the goal line. Wheelchair rugby is open to male or female athletes, with teams of four players and eight substitutes.

●The Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games take place between 6 and 17 September. Highlights will be shown on BBC Two on weekdays between 7pm and 8pm, with live coverage on weekends between 12.50am and 4.30pm.

● More on the Paralympics

This article is published in the 14 August issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Goldrush!

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