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Olympics Part 11: How the Paralympics became a world sporting spectacular

Jo Trzcinksi, June 8, 2021 7:10PM Kids News

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Fireworks light up the stadium at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympics. Picture: Images Getty media_cameraFireworks light up the stadium at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympics. Picture: Images Getty


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The Paralympic Games feature athletes with an impairment* and take place after every Olympic Games in the same host city.

The history of the Paralympic Games stretches back to the year 1944. That’s when a neurologist* named Dr Ludwig Guttmann was asked by the British government to set up a spinal injuries centre at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in the English town of Aylesbury, which he did.

Dr Guttmann was a big believer in using sport to help rehabilitate* injured people to build up their strength and relieve depression*.

On July 29, 1948 – the same day as the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympic Games in London – he held an archery competition for 14 men and two women in wheelchairs, all World War II veterans with spinal cord injuries.

He called the competition the Stoke Mandeville Games.

From these humble* beginnings, the world’s second largest, multi-sport event came into being: the Paralympic Games!

media_cameraBasketballer Brad Ness leads Australia’s Paralympic team into the stadium during the opening ceremony at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games. Picture: AAP Image


In 1952, the Netherlands joined in the Stoke Mandeville Games, making the event the first international sports competition for people with a disability.

In 1960, the ninth international Stoke Mandeville Games were held in Rome, Italy, with 400 athletes from 23 countries competing in eight sports.

This was the first time the Games had been held in the same city as the Olympics, and they came to be known as the first Paralympics.

Since then, the Paralympics have been held every four years, in the same year as the Summer Olympics, with the number of athletes and sports dramatically expanding over the years.

The Winter Paralympics took a little while to come along. They weren’t held until 1976, in Sweden.

Although the Paralympics were held in the same year as the Olympics, it wasn’t until the Seoul Summer Games (in South Korea in 1988) and the Albertville Winter Games (in France in 1992) that the Paralympics started taking place in the same cities and venues as the Olympics.


The postponed Tokyo 2020 Paralympics will be held from August 24 to September 5, 2021. This will be the second time the city has hosted the Paralympics, following the 1964 Games.

About 4400 athletes from 170 countries are due to compete in 22 sports and 539 events.

Two new sports will be included: badminton and taekwondo, replacing sailing and football 7-a-side.

media_cameraParalympic mascot Someity (on the right) takes a walk through Tokyo with Olympic Games mascot Miraitowa. Picture: AFP Photo

The mascot of the Games is a character called Someity (pronounced soh-may-tee), whose name comes from a type of cherry blossom and is similar to the English phrase “so mighty”.

The medals have been especially designed to allow athletes with a visual impairment to identify them by touch. There are indents on their sides (one for gold, two for silver and three for bronze) and Tokyo 2020 is spelt out in braille*.

Tokyo Paralympic medals. For Kids News media_cameraThe Tokyo Paralympic silver, gold and bronze medals feature braille and indents on the side. Picture: Tokyo 2020


  • The Paralympics are for athletes with physical, vision and/or intellectual impairments.
  • They have their own torch relay, medal design and opening and closing ceremonies.
  • The Games were initially open only to athletes in wheelchairs, but at the 1976 Summer Games in Toronto, Canada, other athletes with impairments were able to take part for the first time.
  • Only two Paralympic sports don’t have an Olympic equivalent*: boccia (similar to bowls) and goalball (a team sport for people with a visual impairment).
  • The most successful Paralympian is US swimmer Trischa Zorn, who won 32 gold medals between 1980 and 2004.


The word Paralympics is a combination of “para”, a prefix* meaning beside or alongside, and “Olympics”. The Paralympics are held alongside, or parallel to, the Olympics.


Australia has taken part in every Paralympics except for the 1976 Winter Games (when our athlete planning to compete was later told there were no events for those with his disability).

Athletics, swimming and cycling have delivered the most gold medals to Australia.

4 NDG, "Did it". Louise Sauvage raises her hands in triumph after crossing the line to pick up gold in the womens 5000m t54 wheelchair race. 28/10/00.  Picture: john Appleyard...paralympics media_cameraLouise Sauvage raises her hands in triumph after crossing the line to pick up gold in the women’s 5000m T54 wheelchair race at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics. Picture: John Appleyard

In 2000, Sydney hosted the Paralympics, and these Games broke the record for the number of athletes to ever compete: 3881.

As for which country won the most medals at the Sydney Paralympics …? That was Australia, with 149 medals. It’s still our best Paralympics result ever!


  • Swimmer Matt Cowdrey is our best Paralympian, collecting 23 medals (including 13 gold) at three Games, from 2004 to 2012.
09/08/2008 NEWS: Matt Cowdrey, paralympian competing in the Athens 2004 Paralympics. media_cameraSwimmer Matt Cowdrey dives off the starting blocks at the Athens Paralympics in 2004.
  • Archery athlete Ross Sutton won Australia’s first ever Paralympic gold medal, in 1960.
  • Swimmer Daphne Ceeney was Australia’s first female Paralympic gold medallist – she won two gold medals in 1960.
  • Libby Kosmala was our oldest and one of our most successful Paralympians. She was 74 when she competed in shooting in 2016. Between 1972 and 2016, she won 13 medals (including nine gold) at 12 Games.
  • Wheelchair racer Louise Sauvage won 13 medals (including nine gold) at four Games, from 1992 to 2004.


  • impairment: disability
  • neurologist: a specialist doctor who treats conditions of the brain, spinal cord and nerves
  • rehabilitate: return to health
  • depression: a mental health condition which causes severe sadness
  • humble: ordinary, not special
  • braille: a form of written language for blind people, using patterns of raised dots that are felt with the fingertips
  • equivalent: something that is the same but in a different place, time or system
  • prefix: letters added to the beginning of a word to form a different word


How modern Games became biggest show on earth

Olympic medals go green in Tokyo

Meet mascots Miraitowa and Someity

Olympics host nation in profile – hello, Japan!


  1. Who were the Stoke Mandeville Games first held for?
  2. Which European city hosted both the Olympics and Paralympics for the first time?
  3. How many athletes are expected to compete at the Tokyo Paralympics?
  4. Which Paralympian has won the most medals ever?
  5. Which Paralympian has won the most medals for Australia?


Refer to the accompanying Olympics Education Kit classroom workbook with 25 activities. It’s FREE when teachers subscribe to the Kids News newsletter.

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