This evening the Opening Ceremony for the 2016 Summer Paralympic Games will be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Games take place from September 7th to 18th. It will feature 528 events in 23 sports and have over 4,000 athletes from 160 countries. The Paralympics are the world's biggest athletic competition for athletes with disabilities. These include athletes born without or having amputated (removed) limbs, impaired muscular conditions, impaired vision, and mental impairments.
Depending on the disability, there are different sports that allow athletes to compete with other people who have a similar condition. There are several wheelchair sports, such as basketball, rugby, boccia, and fencing. Football (soccer) 7-a-side is for athletes with cerebral palsy, a condition that affects movement and balance. Meanwhile, football 5-a-side and goalball are sports for visually impaired athletes (these competitors use "blackout masks" to ensure that all of the athletes have the exact same disadvantage).
The power of competition
All athletes thrive on competition. But there is something especially powerful about sport when it is applied to people who have either been born with a disabilities or lost an ability due to an accident. Canadian Paralympic Chantal Beauchesne (who had her left leg amputated after a crash) put it really well when she told Chatelaine that "Sport saved me. Without [it], it would have been difficult to rehabilitate as fast as I did and accept what had happened to me." In other words, being able to focus on competing blocks out negative feelings one might have about having a disability.
This fact is the reason why the Paralympics started in the first place. It was originally started in 1948 as an event for war veterans who had suffered spinal cord injuries (a spinal cord injury typically causes paralysis, or lack of movement, below the waist, meaning that the person must use a wheelchair). They were called the International Wheelchair Games, and they happened at the same time as the 1948 Olympics in London. (Today, a new international competition for disabled war veterans has been started called the Invictus Games. The next Invictus will happen in September 2017 in Toronto.)
The Paralympics come into their own
By 1960, the name was changed to the Paralympic Games and it included over 400 athletes from 23 countries. The games were still for athletes in wheelchairs, though. It wasn't until 1976 that events were opened to include athletes with different impairments. 1976 was also the first year that a Winter Paralympics were held. The games have been gaining events, athletes, fans, and momentum ever since.
Today, the over 4,000 participants at these games are the best of the best. All of this competition has allowed Paralympians to become elite athletes. They train year round and become stars in their own right. Chantal Petitclerc, a wheelchair racer from Quebec who won 21 medals, including 14 golds, is even a senator in Canada's government. So whether it's nine-time gold medallist Canadian swimmer Benoit Huot or multi-medallist American wheelchair racer Tatyana McFadden, we're looking forward to some exciting performances over the next 12 days in Rio.
Let the Games begin!