Access for all: the rise of the Paralympic Games

J R Soc Promot Health. 2007 May;127(3):133-41. doi: 10.1177/1466424007077348.


The Paralympic, or Parallel, Games for athletes with disabilities have played a major role over the past half century in changing attitudes towards disability and accelerating the agenda for inclusion. This article charts their development from small beginnings as a competition for disabled ex-servicemen and women in England founded shortly after the Second World War to the present day ambulatory international festival of Summer and Winter Games organized in conjunction with the Olympic Games. The Paralympic Games trace their origins to the work of Dr (later Sir) Ludwig Guttmann at the National Spinal Injuries Unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire who used sport as an integral part of the treatment of paraplegic patients. A sports competition was held at the hospital to coincide with the Opening Ceremony of the London Games in July 1948. This became an annual event attracting the first international participation in 1952, after which it became the International Stoke Mandeville Games. From 1960 onwards attempts were made to hold every fourth Games in the Olympic host city. Despite initial success in staging the 1960 Games in Rome and the 1964 Games in Tokyo, subsequent host cities refused to host the competitions and alternative locations were found where a package of official support, finance and suitable venues could be assembled. In 1976, the scope of the Games was widened to accept other disabilities. From 1988 onwards, a process of convergence took place that saw the Paralympics brought into the central arena of the Olympics, both literally and figuratively. In the process they have embraced new sports, have encompassed a wider range of disabilities, and helped give credence to the belief that access to sport is available to all. The Paralympics also underline the change from sport as therapeutic competition to that of elite events that carry intrinsic prestige, with growing rivalry over medal tables. For the future, however, questions remain as to whether the current arrangements of separate but supposedly equal festivals assist the continuing development of the Paralympics or perpetuate difference.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Anniversaries and Special Events*
  • Attitude to Health
  • Disabled Persons / history*
  • Global Health
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Human Rights / history*
  • Humans
  • London
  • Public Policy
  • Sports / classification
  • Sports / history*
  • United Kingdom