Rio 2016 continues: tonight the Olympic flame will light up the Paralympics

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Olympic Torch with Rio 2016 logo

The countdown has begun! The 2016 Rio Paralympic Games are upon us and we are looking forward to hearing the starting pistol and seeing the 4,350 athletes from 176 countries around the world competing and celebrating the Olympic spirit!
This year the program will boast 23 disciplines including, for the first time, para-rowing and paratriathlon.

The name Paralympics carries with it the prefix ‘para’, which usually appears in loanwords from Greek, with the meanings of “at one side of, or beside”. They are celebrated shortly after the Olympic Games and like the Olympics they are divided into summer games (this year from 7 to 18 September, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) and winter games (the next edition will be in Pyeongchang, South Korea, 9 to 18 March 2018).

The origins of the Paralympic Games dates back to 1948 when Ludwig Guttmann, a German exile in Britain since the start of the Second World War, decided to organize a sporting competition to allow his patients, suffering from spinal injuries, to play sports at an official event. Guttmann worked at the Spinal Unit of Stoke Mandeville hospital and believed that one of the key elements of a successful rehabilitation was to encourage patients to be active in sports.
However, to get to the modern Paralympics, we have to wait until 1960 when a week after the conclusion of the Olympic Games, the first International Paraplegic Games took part in Rome. They were organized by INAIL (the Italian non-profit Institute for Insurance against Accidents at Work) and the Italian National Olympic Committee (CONI).
Since 2001, the Paralympic games are paired with the Olympic Games, thanks to an agreement between the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC).

But what categories of athletes take part to the Paralympics?
Each Paralympic sport has specific athlete categories which differ depending on the disease, the degree of disability and the athlete’s physical capabilities. For the first few editions, Paralympic athletes were classified according to six different classes: amputations, cerebral palsy, visual impairment, spinal cord injuries, intellectual disability and a group that included those who did not fit into the previous categories (formally ‘Other’. This group included, for example, athletes suffering from dwarfism or congenital deformities). This first athlete classification system considered the practice of sports as an extension of the rehabilitation process.
Over the years, Paralympic sports developed into an autonomous movement, and today they are no longer related to rehabilitation. To reflect this evolution, the athlete classification system has been modified, with the goal to make each competition as fair as possible among athletes with different disabilities.

Today there are 10 types of impediments eligible for Paralympic sports, and they are divided into three broad groups:

  • Motor disabilities, which include neuromusculoskeletal disabilities.
  • Visual impairments.
  • Intellectual disabilities.

Given that different disciplines require different physical abilities, today each sport discipline has its specific athlete classification system.
Beyond the technical aspects that we have just discussed, the history and the evolution of the Paralympic Games reflect a tendency to put a clear demarcation line between the Olympics and the Paralympics.  Possibly missing the main point driving the modern Olympic movement: an undivided passion for sports and its athletes.
Fabia Timaco, a young Italian storyteller, offers an original point of view on the perceived ‘special’ status of the Paralympics. She believes that a paralympic athlete (and a disabled person, for that matter) is not more “special” than any other athlete, it is not a “superhero”, as often portrayed in the media.
To make her point more compelling, she refers to a TED Talk by Stella Young, an Australian comedian and disability rights activist. In her speech, Stella makes the point that often a disabled person is seen as a martyr or a hero, “just for getting out of bed and for remembering her name. People always see us as inspirational. We are not seen as ordinary people, we exist to provide inspiration and, I imagine, that you did expect to be inspired by me today, ” she says addressing her audience. “Well, ladies and gentlemen, you will be disappointed, because I am here to tell you that you were lied to when it comes to disabilities. People are spoon fed the idea that disability is a Negative Thing, with a capital N and a capital T. And that coping with disabilities makes us exceptional. The reality is that disability is not a bad thing and it does not make us exceptional“.

We believe that the contrarian views of Fabia and Stella can help us to enjoy and celebrate the Paralympic Games in a new and exciting light.
In recent years, Paralympic Games have received much more coverage than in the past and are gaining importance. Who knows, maybe in the future we’ll see the two events joined together!

What do you think? Do you agree with Fabia and Stella?
Leave us a comment with your opinion!

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Sofia Zuccalà
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Sofia Zuccalà

I'm a 23 years old MSc student in Communication of Science and Sustainable Innovation and I am a communication lover. I have a BSc in Communication, Innovation and Multimedia and at the moment I'm writing for several blogs about technology, science and current news.
Sofia Zuccalà
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