What Are the Paralympic Games?
It is a humid September evening in 2016. At the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, more than seventy thousand spectators fill the seats for the opening ceremony of the fifteenth Summer Paralympics. Seventeen days earlier, the closing ceremony for the Olympics took place here, too.
The Olympics and the Paralympics both feature summer and winter games. Both are held every four years. And thousands of athletes from around the world gather to compete in both sets of games.
There’s one real difference: At the Paralympics, the athletes have a range of disabilities—any conditions that somehow limit movement or activity. Some swim without arms, race without legs, or run without sight.
The opening ceremony begins with a parade of athletes entering the stadium. Teams arrive from over 160 countries, each led by a flag-bearer. Some athletes are in wheelchairs, some have guides, and some wear prosthetics—artificial limbs. Speeches are given, and music is played. Performers take the stage.
Then an announcement is made. “Ladies and gentlemen, the Paralympic flame!” After a relay across Brazil, the torch arrives.
Marcia Malsar receives the torch just as it starts to rain. Water drenches Malsar, who must use a cane to cross the stage. She raises the flame above her head. Suddenly, she slips and falls. The torch drops to the ground.
Immediately, Malsar gets to her feet. Someone holds out the torch. She takes it, smiling. The crowd roars with approval. So do the other athletes. They understand that when you fall, you just get up again.
Now Marcia delivers the torch to the next in line. The cauldron is lit. Fireworks explode.
Let the Games begin! Chapter 1
: The Idea Forms
The Paralympics began with one doctor’s vision: He believed that paraplegics—people who can’t move their legs or lower body—could lead full, useful lives. Many other doctors at the time didn’t think they could improve the health or well-being of people in wheelchairs, so they didn’t even try.
During the years after World War II, Dr. Ludwig Guttmann saw hospitals filled with wounded soldiers, many with spinal cord injuries. At the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in England, Guttmann created workshops and classes designed to get the patients moving.
One afternoon Guttmann jumped in a wheelchair to join patients hitting a puck with canes. Why not have team sports, too?
he thought. Another day, he brought in bows and arrows for archery.
Doctors in other hospitals soon adopted Guttmann’s program. And that gave Guttmann another idea: to host a sports competition between hospitals.
In 1948, the first Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralyzed took place. He chose the date with care: July 29. It was the same day as the opening ceremony of the Olympics in nearby London.
Already, Guttmann had a plan to have an Olympics for those with disabilities.
Of course, no one would confuse the first Stoke Mandeville Games with the Olympics. There was just one sport, archery, and only two teams. Fourteen men and two women competed. But the Games were such a success that Guttmann decided to hold them every year. Each year, more events were added. Soon there were wheelchair races on the track and swimmers in the pool.
In 1952, the Games welcomed a team from another country, the Netherlands. By the time the United States sent a group in 1955, there were seventeen other countries competing. The International Olympic Committee took notice. The next year, it gave Guttmann’s Stoke Mandeville Games an award for outstanding Olympic ideals.
Years passed and the Games added a flag, a parade of athletes, and an opening day relay. Instead of a torch, “runners” who traveled by car and wheelchair carried a scroll stating the Paralympic mission: “To unite paralyzed men and women from all parts of the world . . . [to] give hope and inspiration to thousands of paralyzed people.” In the very first relay, in 1958, Dick Thompson brought the scroll home to Stoke Mandeville.
At the Games, Thompson was already a star. At the age of seventeen, he had broken his back in a climbing accident. He wound up paralyzed from the chest down. One year later, in 1950, he won the javelin event, a throwing contest.
The javelin is a long spear, and in the nondisabled sport, a thrower gets a running start. But wheelchair throwers are seated—and remain at a standstill—using only shoulder strength, not momentum, to hurl the javelin.
Thompson’s first winning throw was forty-six feet, one inch.
At one event, Thompson even competed against two nondisabled men: the British javelin and shot put champions. Guttmann sat them down in wheelchairs. Thompson beat them both.
Then came 1960. The Olympics had just been held in Rome. And Thompson, along with wheelchair teams from more than twenty countries, was headed there, too. Guttmann’s dream was coming true. After all, what better way was there for the Paralympics to be like the Olympics than for it to share a host city? Chapter 2
: The Early Years
The 1960 Games are considered the first international Paralympics, and Margaret Maughan was thrilled to be part of them.
Just a year and ahalf earlier, Maughan had been in a car accident. She would never walk again. At Stoke Mandeville, she took up archery. She was a natural. For Maughan, making Great Britain’s team was the easy part. However, getting on an airplane meant being raised to the airplane door by a forklift.
In Rome, teams had to stay in buildings without elevators. Luckily, the Italian army was called in to help. They were stationed on landings to carry people up and down the steep stairs.
No TV cameras focused on these four hundred or so para-athletes. There were no cheering crowds at Margaret Maughan’s archery event. Maughan wasn’t even sure there were officials keeping score. She had no idea how she’d done until she was on a bus and someone told her she was wanted at the awards ceremony. She had won a gold medal.
Like most everyone else, Maughan competed in more than one sport. Wheelchair racers played basketball. Fencers threw the shot put. With little funding, only a small group of British athletes was able to go. They had to cover all different events. Maughan won a gold in swimming for a backstroke event where she was the only contestant in the pool.
In 1964, the next Olympic year, Paralympic teams traveled to Tokyo. They competed right after the Olympians. Once again, the two events shared one host city. They were tied together, part of Guttmann’s Paralympic plan.
But the connection wouldn’t last.
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