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The XVI Summer Paralympic Games in Tokyo

Regas Woods, a Black man with double above the knee limb loss, jumps using his prostheses at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games.

Humble Origins of the Paralympic Games

As excitement builds for the XVI Summer Paralympic Games taking place August 24 – September 5, 2021, we are well served to take a quick look back at the humble history and origins of this competition.

A large sculpture of the Paralympic symbol (a red, blue, and green crescent side by side).

Founding Father of Organized Competition for People with Disabilities

Sir Ludwig “Poppa” Guttman (1899-1980) has been widely hailed as a founding father for his tireless work towards the organization of physical activities and competitions for people with disabilities. He was a German-British neurologist, a Jewish doctor who fled Nazi Germany shortly before the start of World War II. Dr. Guttman worked at The Stoke Mandeville Hospital rehabilitation facility in Aylesbury, England, specifically with people that had sustained spinal cord injuries, and so it was that hospital that became the proving ground for Dr. Guttman’s first attempt at organized competition for people in wheelchairs.

Inaugural Stoke Mandeville Games

A postal stamp with German writing from 1972 depicting a drawing of a man in a wheelchair against a yellow background aiming an archer's bow and arrow.

On a July day in the summer of 1948, the hospital held its inaugural sporting competition to coincide with the Opening Ceremony at the London Summer Olympics. Dr. Guttmann had organized the competition for wheelchair athletes in a field of 16 spinal-cord-injured-wheelchair-using servicemen and women who took part in an archery contest. Thus the Stoke Mandeville Games were born, a simple but important precursor to what would become known many years later as the Paralympic Games.

The Stoke Mandeville Games grew in popularity from then on, until finally the demonstrated cornerstones of social value and celebration of human achievement that resulted from the competitions garnished the attention of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). In 1960, Dr. Guttman was awarded the Sir Thomas Fearnley Cup by the IOC for his service to people living with disabilities and the effectual successes of organized competition. It was in Rome, Italy, of this same year that The Stoke Mandeville Games transitioned its name to the Paralympic Games which featured 400 athletes from 23 countries. The Paralympic Games have taken place every four years ever since, typically occurring within a few weeks after the Olympic Closing Ceremony and held at the same location as the Olympic Games.

A white man wearing a helmet propels himself in his three-wheeled racing wheelchair.

Paralympic Games of Today

This summer, the 2020 XVI Paralympic Games will feature approximately 4,300 athletes competing in over 500 events across 22 sports at over 20 venues who will also enjoy their own official Paralympic Opening and Closing ceremonies. Today, there are several disability classifications included in the Paralympics beyond the original Stoke Mandeville wheelchair competitions; there are now also categories for amputees, cerebral palsy, intellectual disability, vision impairment, and other disabilities.

A white woman with right-arm limb loss holds a table tennis paddle in anticipation to hit the arriving ball.

Paralympians are people that live with a disability and, like their fellow Olympians, channel laser focus commitment towards athletic achievement and performance at the highest levels. These Paralympians are subject to the same highs and lows, tragedies and triumphs, and pain and perseverance experienced by their Olympian counterparts. We look forward to watching these master athletes blaze new trails as they amaze us all with their commitment to excellence and redefining what is possible in athletic competition.

Two visually impaired goalball players wearing blackout eye masks lie in front of a net to try to stop the ball from entering their goal.

For the first time ever, NBC will be airing the Paralympic Games during prime time. Be sure to tune in and show your support! Check your cable provider listings, as well as the NBC and Peacock mobile apps for live stream and replay options. Below is a link with a comprehensive, day-by-day schedule for the entirety of the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games, so grab the popcorn and get ready to root for your favorite athletes!

Interested in getting involved in adaptive sports? Check with your local community centers, hospitals, department of parks and recreation, and Facebook groups. You can also do a web search of your sport of choice + your city. No experience necessary!


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