Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

Spirit in Motion

by Shmuel Ross

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The Paralympics are the second-largest sports competition in the world, after the Olympics; 4,328 athletes from various nations competed in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, and 670 athletes will compete in the 2018 Paralympics held in PyeongChang. They include athletes with spinal cord injuries; amputated limbs; blindness or other visual impairments; cerebral palsy; mental handicaps; and various other disabilities, including multiple sclerosis and dwarfism. The Paralympics are coordinated by the International Paralympic Committee, founded in 1989 (succeeding several committees that had existed before then), which is the only international organization representing all sports and disabilities.

Like the Olympics, the Paralympics are a competition of people with the highest athletic ability. They should not be confused with the Special Olympics, which are open to all children and adults with intellectual disabilities, no matter what their levels of athletic ability are.

Name and Motto

The name "Paralympics" comes from the Greek prefix "para-" (in this context, "beside" or "alongside") and "Olympics." "Parallel Olympics" approximates the intended meaning. It has nothing to do with "paralysis" or "paraplegia." Its motto was "Mind, Body, Spirit" from 1994 through 2003, and is now "Spirit in Motion."


The 2016 Paralympic Games, held in Brazil after the Summer Olympics, had 4,328 competing athletes and 528 medal events. There were 22 sports overall, most of which are common for the Paralympics: archery, boccia, cycling, equestrian, football, powerlifting, sailing, shooting, volleyball, swimming, and tennis to name a few. The 2016 Paralympic Games also debuted two new sporting events: canoe and triathlon. 

The 2018 Winter Paralympics will be held on March 8, in PyeongChang, South Korea. There will be a total of 670 athletes competing in 80 medal events and six sports: alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, ice sledge hockey, snowboarding, and wheelchair curling. The 2020 Summer Paralympics will be held in Tokyo, Japan, following the Summer Olympic Games. 

Stoke Mandeville Games

The story of the Paralympics begins with Dr. Ludwig Guttman of Stoke Mandeville Hospital in England. In 1944, he began using sports as a form of recreation and physical therapy for veterans of World War II with spinal cord injuries. In 1948, on the day that the Olympic Summer Games opened in London, he organized the Stoke Mandeville Games, a competition for wheelchair athletes. This became an annual event, and, in 1952, it achieved international standing, as athletes from the Netherlands joined the competition. This competition—now known as the World Wheelchair Games—is still held annually, except in years with Paralympic Summer Games.

Paralympic Games

The first Paralympic Games took place in Rome, a week after the 1960 Summer Olympic Games were held there. 400 athletes with spinal cord injuries from 23 countries competed in eight sports, including snooker, fencing, field events, basketball, swimming, table tennis, archery, and the pentathlon. In 1964, they were again held in the same venue as the Olympics, in Tokyo. In 1968, Mexico City (home of that year's Olympics) declined to host the Paralympics, so they moved to Tel Aviv instead. From then until 1988, the Paralympics continued to be held in locations other than the Olympics.

The 1972 Paralympics included the first competition for quadraplegics, and demonstration events for the visually impaired. In 1976, the visually impaired, amputees, and "les autres"—a catchall term embracing many sorts of motor disabilities—were fully included for the first time. 1976 also brought the first Paralympic Winter Games, featuring events in Alpine and Nordic skiing for visually impaired athletes and amputees.

Partnership with Olympics

The Paralympics have continued to grow, and the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul were once again held in the same venues as the Olympics. They have been held together ever since. In 2001, it was officially agreed that all future Olympics and Paralympics will be held in the same venues, with host cities bidding to get both as a package deal.

Following this tradition, the 2016 Summer Paralympics were held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil following the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. After the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, the 2018 Winter Paralympics will be held in PyeongChang, South Korea. The 2020 Summer Olympic Games are scheduled to take place in Tokyo, Japan, where the 2020 Summer Paralympics will follow. 

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