31/08/2021

Olympian heights

In the summer of 1964, with the games over, the steps to the Olympic Village in Tokyo were dismantled. In their place, ramps went up. Japan then staged the second Paralympic Games, lasting five days and bringing together 378 athletes to compete in nine sports. The Paralympics have returned to Japan (it is the first city to host the summer games twice). Much has changed for the Paralympics in the interim.

The Paralympics started small. Born out of an archery and netball competition held at a hospital for British veterans in 1948, the first games in Rome in 1960 featured 400 competitors. Until 1976, Paralympic events involved only wheelchair athletes. Since then the games have expanded to include athletes with ten types of physical, visual and intellectual impairments, though some sports are only played by those with specific disabilities. This year’s event features 4,403 participants from 161 countries and a team of refugee athletes, up from 23 in 1960. More female athletes will compete than ever before.

The number of sports has risen over the years. The Tokyo games has a record 537 medal events. Goalball, in which blindfolded teams of three try to throw a ball with a bell in it into the other team’s goal in front of a hushed crowd, and boccia, in which athletes take turns to throw or kick six balls as close to a target as possible, are unique to the Paralympics. Sports that also feature in the Olympics are often slightly different. Para-taekwondo, which makes its debut in Tokyo as the first full-contact Paralympic sport, bans kicks to the head but awards additional points for trickier manoeuvres such as spinning kicks.

The games seek to level the playing field among athletes with different conditions. Players are grouped into classes based on their ability to perform activities specific to that sport. A person with mild cerebral palsy, for example, may face a partially paralysed athlete in table tennis, but not one with a more severe cerebral palsy. According to the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), the classification system seeks to eliminate the “threat of one-sided and predictable competition, in which the least impaired athlete always wins” and reward sporting excellence. Critics worry that the classification system is ill-calibrated, and occasionally ill-applied. In 2000, a Spanish basketball team lied about having intellectual disabilities and went on to win the gold. They were later stripped of their medals. The IPC says that the classification process is constantly under review, and improves with data-driven insights and advances in sports science.

Hosting the games can spur cities to invest in disability infrastructure and push laws that further social inclusion, says Craig Spence of the IPC. Japan has accelerated efforts to make all transport hubs “barrier-free”. The stigma surrounding disability may prove more indelible. In July a pop musician was booted from the Olympics opening ceremony when his callous remarks towards disabled people came to light.

This year’s games promise to grow the competition's prestige, with nearly 4.25bn people expected to tune in. The IPC hopes that can be parlayed into wider engagement with disability issues. On August 19th, it convened the “We the 15” campaign, named after the 15% of the world’s population estimated to be disabled. It aims to dispel the perception that disabled people are either superhumans or subjects of pity. At the very least, it should show that many are spectacular athletes.

This article is from our Graphic detail section.