A superhuman story

The Paralympics is the second biggest elite competitive sporting event in the world. The games were designed to run parallel – hence ‘para’ – to the Olympics and showcase disability sports alongside the able-bodied.

But despite a record-breaking 4,350 athletes from 160 countries taking the road to Rio 2016, disabled sportsmen and women haven’t always been given an equal platform on which to compete.


The first Paralympian

Louis Melsheimer/Concordia Gymnastic Society Collection/Missouri History Museum, St Louis

TEST George Eyser - do not publish

George Eyser (centre) demonstrating his athletic prowess with his Concordia gymnastics teammates in 1907.

George Eyser won six medals in the 1904 Olympics. He was the first disabled person to compete in an international sporting event of this calibre.

Eyser was an American-German gymnast who lost his leg in a train accident as a young boy. He went on to join a local athletics club – Concordia Turnverein – in St Louis, where the 1904 Summer Olympics was held. Eyser won gold in the vault, a gruelling event in which athletes jumped over a long horse without aid of a springboard. This triumph was perhaps a precursor to the disabled sportsmen and women taking their place alongside Olympic athletes today.

Do superhumans really exist?


War veterans and wheelchairs

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Athletes compete at the 1953 Stoke Mandeville Games (From BBC Alba History Shorts, courtesy of British Pathe)

After World War Two, vast numbers of war veterans returned to civilian life as wheelchair users, a result of injuries they sustained in the conflict.

They were neglected by a medical system ill-equipped to deal with their injuries. But when Dr Ludwig Guttmann arrived at Stoke Mandeville hospital in Buckinghamshire he revolutionised their treatment. With his medical expertise, progressive methods and some tough love, Guttmann helped them rehabilitate through competitive sport. In 1948, on the opening day of the London Olympics, he chaired the Stoke Mandeville Games – his own brainchild – for 16 injured servicemen and women.

How did WW1 change the way we treat injuries today?

It is amazing to think that not that many years ago the treatment of paraplegics was generally regarded as a waste of time.

HRH Prince Charles, foreword of Spirit of Stoke Mandeville by Susan Goodman (1986)


Overcoming injury

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Stoke Mandeville disabled athletes training

A Paralympic athlete training at Stoke Mandeville, watched by patients, ahead of the 1964 Paralympics to be held in Tokyo, pictured 22 July 1964.

Dr Guttmann's Annual Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralysed achieved renown as an international sports event.

During the Olympic Games in Melbourne in 1956, the Olympic Committee awarded the Fearnley Cup – given for outstanding merit in the name of Olympism – to the organisation of the Stoke Mandeville Games. It was the first time this particular Olympic award had come to Britain, and the first time it had been given to a sports organisation for severely disabled people. This marked a milestone in the Paralympic movement and confirmed the need to showcase disabled sport alongside mainstream events.

WATCH: Ludwig 'Poppa' Guttmann's Paralympic dreams

Small as it was, it was a demonstration to the public that competitive sport is not the prerogative of the able-bodied.

Dr Ludwig Guttmann, speaking after the first Stoke Mandeville Games (1948)


Pioneering the Paralympics


1960 Margaret Maughan London 2012

Margaret Maughan lights the Paralympic flame at London 2012.

About 400 athletes from 23 countries competed in the first true Paralympic Games in Rome – known then as the ninth Stoke Mandeville Games.

Among them was 32-year-old archer Margaret Maughan, Britain's first ever Paralympic gold medallist. Maughan also swam for GB in the women's 50m backstroke, winning the race as the only competitor. Wheelchair accessibility was not a major consideration in 1960 and Maughan relates how she and her British team-mates boarded the plane to Rome via forklift trucks. She made history by competing on the first day of the 1960 Games and lighting the Paralympic flame at London 2012, 60 years later.

How have the Olympics changed for women?

I think often disabled people are a bit scared to join a [sports] club... London 2012 opened up the doors for me to help change that.

Margaret Maughan, speaking about the impact of the 2012 Paralympic Games in August 2013


The competition toughens


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The British team parade in the opening ceremony of the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, among other delegates from the 21 participating countries.

The 1964 Paralympic Games in Tokyo saw 21 delegations represented, although there was some controversy surrounding South Africa's participation.

South Africa was banned from the Olympics due to its ongoing apartheid system. The Paralympics took no such action. However, the 1964 Games – only the second official Paralympics – marked a surge in the number of athletes and competing nations. Athletes were so few in 1960 that each competitor was guaranteed a medal, as fewer than three individuals competed per event. This changed in Tokyo as competition for medal places increased. Tokyo will host the games again in 2020.

Should politics and sports ever mix?


Inhospitable hosts

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Dr Guttman

Dr Guttmann at his desk in 1968, amid efforts to allow Paralympians to compete in the Olympic host cities.

Dr Guttmann's Paralympic dream was for every disabled athlete to compete alongside Olympians in the name of equality.

But in 1968, Mexico City refused to host the Paralympics due to technical difficulties. This was disheartening for the growing Paralympic movement as it showed Olympic host cities' reluctance to provide disability access. Instead, Tel Aviv hosted the 1968 Paralympics. Against the odds, it was a huge success and an epic display for the 10,000 spectators. In 1988 an agreement was struck for the Paralympics and Olympics to be held in the same city. Now, host cities must bid for both games.

Why did Mexico City reject the Paralympics in 1968?


Drinking games

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1972 Heidelberg paralympics discus event

Israel's A Mushraki swings into action in the discus event at Heidelberg 1972, his wheelchair securely fastened to an immobilising device.

The 1972 Paralympics in Heidelberg featured just 10 different sports, as amputees and visually impaired athletes were not yet allowed to compete.

But for those athletes who did qualify, the German games offered some light relief in the form of the 'Beer Tent'. This accessible communal area – the first of its kind for Paralympians – staged entertainment for athletes during their downtime. The new diversified cultural programme helped foster a sense of community and build ties between athletes and nations. The Beer Tent tradition continued in future International Stoke Mandeville Games as well as the Paralympic Games of 1976, 1980 and 1984.

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It's a goalball!

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Paralympic goalball team from China

Masae Komiya of Japan throws the ball during the women's goalball final against China at London 2012.

Goalball is one of only two Paralympic sports that were invented and designed for disabled athletes, specifically those with visual impairments.

The rules are simple: to throw a ball into the other team's net. Each ball encases a bell in order for players to locate it, making it twice as heavy as a basketball. The athletes' upper body strength means they can throw the ball at speeds of up to 60mph. All players wear blackout goggles and the courts are complete with tactile lines allowing players to manoeuvre with ease. The sport was introduced at the 1976 Toronto Paralympics and has promoted inclusivity for blind athletes ever since.

What's the fastest thing at the Olympics?


Worth their weight in gold

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Trischa Zorn paralympian swimmer

Trischa Zorn in action while winning a silver medal in the women's 100m breaststroke SB12 final at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games.

In 1980, Trischa Zorn, an American swimmer with visual impairments splashed onto the Paralympic scene.

She began her Paralympic career in Arnhem, the Netherlands. Over 24 years and seven games, Trischa went on to win 55 medals, a staggering 41 of which were gold. She competed in all strokes and distances in the S12, SB12 and SM12 categories. Zorn's domination of her sport is astounding, particularly when compared to her fellow American swimmer, Michael Phelps who tops the record table for most Olympic medals. Phelps has a total of 22 medals; fewer than half of Zorn's.

WATCH: Meet the guides racing alongside blind athletes

Two thousand years ago, Democritus said 'To win oneself is the first and best of all victories.'

Sir Philip Craven, President of the IPC, Athens 2004 Paralympic Opening Ceremony


A tale of two cities

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Boccia Paralympics

Watcharaphon Vongsa of Thailand in action during the boccia mixed team BC1-2 at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

In 1984 Paralympians competed on both sides of the Atlantic, as the biggest games ever seen captivated two host nations: America and the UK.

Wheelchair athletes were meant to have competed at Champaign, Illinois, but financial problems meant a last-minute relocation to their spiritual home at Stoke Mandeville. Additional events were held in New York. This was the last time the Paralympic events were held in a different city or country from the Olympic Games. The 1984 games were otherwise notable for introducing the precision throwing game boccia, the second sport developed for disabled athletes.

What is boccia?


Racing towards equality

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Handcycling 1988 Seoul Summer Paralympics

American Paralympian Craig Blanchette leading the 1500m wheelchair race at Olympic Stadium in Seoul, 1988.

The 1988 Seoul Paralympics is regarded now as the genesis of the modern Paralympic Games.

Seoul was the first host city to accommodate both the Olympics and the Paralympics. Paralympians were watched and cheered on by the world through the same lens as the Olympians. Many agree this was a huge milestone. The games also inspired the first ever IPC-approved Paralympic flag which promoted the Paralympians' own distinct identity. A record number of 3,057 competitors from 61 nations took part, competing in 18 different sports – from athletics to swimming, wheelchair basketball to track.

BBC: 10 things you didn't know about the Paralympics


Coming in from the cold

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German Paralympic skier winter olympics

Simon Voit of Germany carves up the slopes in the men's giant slalom at the Turin 2006 Winter Paralympic Games.

Although the first Winter Paralympics was held in 1976 in Sweden, France hosted the first Winter Paralympics and Olympics concurrently in 1992.

In fact, this was the first ever Paralympic event to be held by France. The 1992 Winter Paralympics – hosted by Tignes and Albertville – marked a moment in the Paralympic movement when disabled skiers were acknowledged alongside able-bodied winter sportspeople and allowed them to use the same facilities as Olympians. The 1992 Winter Paralympics only accommodated two sports: Nordic and alpine skiing. Since, the events have expanded to include seven disciplines including para-snowboarding.

How far can I push my body?

What's the point of going slow? I don't care if I am about to die... I died the day I was diagnosed. I have a 15 per cent survival chance.

Augusto Jose Perez, an American Paralympic skier and stage-four cancer patient (Sochi, March 2014)


Murderball set in motion

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Murderball New Zealand

Curtis Palmer of the New Zealand Wheelblacks takes a fall during the NZ v GB wheelchair rugby match at the Sydney Paralympic Games in 2000.

Wheelchair rugby – originally called murderball – proved to be a hugely popular disability sport thanks to its aggressive, full-contact powerplays.

Wheelchair rugby, which borrows rules from ice hockey and rugby union, allows quadriplegic athletes to tackle offense and defense. Players have reinforced steel wheelchairs which they spin round the pitch – and into each other. Wheelchair rugby appeared in the 1996 Atlanta Summer Paralympics as a demonstration sport much to the delight of crowds. Perhaps because of these high-octane events, Atlanta's Paralympics were the first to gain mass media sponsorship with a budget of $81 million.

How do rugby players survive such big hits?

I think people genuinely want to come and watch us smash each other out of our wheelchairs. It's like PC gone completely right.

Aaron Phipps, GB wheelchair rugby team, 2012


Paralympic cheating controversy

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Netherlands basketball team Sydney 2000 Paralympics

Gert Jan Van Der Linden of the Netherlands in action during the AUS v NED men's preliminary basketball at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games.

The 2000 Sydney Paralympics marked another year of progression for the movement, despite the event being mired in controversy.

Claims that 10 of the 12 Spanish basketball team had no intellectual disability and were recruited to improve their overall performance shocked organisers. The athletes were quickly exposed and the IPC reacted by removing all events for athletes with intellectual disabilities from the following games. This decision wasn't overturned until London 2012. The Sydney games had the highest number of positive Paralympic doping tests since 1992.

How can you tell if an adult is autistic?

Sydney was an athletic Disneyland... It probably marked the time when Paralympians genuinely became part of the Olympic Movement.

Tanni Grey-Thompson, Britain's best-known Paralympic figure


Broadcasting barriers

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Women's Blind Cycling USA team 2004 Athens Paralympics

USA's Karissa Whitsell and Katie Compton race to a gold medal in the B1-3 tandem road cycling time trial at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens.

In 2004, the Paralympics became part of the 2,700-year old Olympic history when Greece – the country where it all began – hosted both events.

Although the Paralympic Games was broadcast to 1.6 billion viewers in 49 countries, no American television network stayed in Athens to broadcast the event. Some US viewers were forced to wait almost two months until coverage was broadcast. Many felt angry because they were unable to cheer on the American Paralympians who excelled in the 19 sporting events held at the 2004 Athens Paralympics. Team US took home 88 medals and ranked fourth out of 135 competing nations, behind China, GB and Canada.

Why have American TV networks shunned past Paralympics?


Simmonds swims for gold

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An emotional Ellie Simmonds poolside after winning gold at the 2008 Paralympics. (From BBC Paralympics: Games Today)

The Beijing Summer Paralympics saw athletes break records across all sporting events, but none more prominently than in the pool.

Global audiences watched as Ellie Simmonds OBE – the youngest member of the GB team at just 13 – won gold in the S6 100m and 400m freestyle events at the Beijing Paralympic Games in 2008. That year Simmonds won the 2008 BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year award, highlighting her inspirational achievements. South African Natalie Du Toit also became the third amputee ever to qualify for the Olympics, competing against able-bodied athletes and finishing 16th in the 10k marathon swim.

LISTEN: Ellie Simmonds' motivating music playlist

We're athletes. We train just as hard as the Olympians.

Ellie Simmonds, 9 September 2012


Changing perceptions

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Jonnie Peacock 100m 2012 London Paralympics

Jonnie Peacock wins the gold medal, outrunning Oscar Pistorius in the T44 100m sprint at the London 2012 Paralympics.

The London 2012 Paralympics invited a whole nation to #MeetTheSuperhumans evoking unprecedented change in public attitudes towards disability sports.

A record-breaking 2.7 million tickets were sold and Channel 4 broadcast 500 hours of coverage across events; a 400% rise on the 2008 games in Beijing. In total, the London Paralympics were watched by 40 million people and 6.3 million people tuned in to witness Jonnie Peacock's gold medal win in the T44 100m – the biggest ever Paralympic sports audience in the UK. 2012 was also the year Oscar Pistorius became the first amputee runner to compete at the Summer Olympics.

Is physical endurance all in the mind?

There is no such thing as a standard or run of the mill human being – but we share the same human spirit.

Steven Hawking, London 2012 Paralympics opening ceremony


The road to Rio

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Rio 2016 Paralympics

The Rio 2016 Paralympics will welcome 4,350 athletes from 178 countries and regions competing in 22 events.

Rio 2016 was controversial before it began, with poor ticket sales, funding cuts, venue changes and Russia's ban after doping allegations.

Athletes from over 160 countries competed in 528 medal events in 22 sports across 34 competition venues. Rio's Olympic and Paralympic village was the size of 100 football fields over 12 floors; happily, the average waiting time for a lift was just 43 seconds. For the first time, the heritage flame was ignited in Stoke Mandeville, before taking the road to Rio, to help spark the Paralympic flame in a touching tribute to Dr Guttmann's vision.

WATCH: How will Rio 2016 cater for disabled people?

The Paralympians have lifted the cloud of limitation.

Sebastian Coe, Chairman of London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics Games committee