Every two years the sports world is treated to a celebration of exceptionalism—the summer and winter Olympic Games—followed by a festival of inspiration—the Paralympics—a few weeks later. But does the popular representation of the Paralympics reinforce stereotypes of those with disabilities?
Born in 1948 as an annual competition for World War II veterans with spinal injuries at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, England, the first official quadrennial Paralympic Games were held in Rome in 1960. In the 56 years since, the Paralympics have evolved from a competition for wheelchair athletes to a major international sporting event. Some 4,350 athletes, from more than 160 countries, will compete in Rio. In 1960, everyone was guaranteed a medal. In 2016, most will go home empty-handed.
The visibility of disability sports has been boosted recently with the introduction of events like the U.S.-based Warrior Games and the international Invictus Games, for injured military service personnel. At the closing ceremonies of the 2012 Games, International Paralympic Committee (IPC) president Sir Philip Craven recounted the story of a five-year-old boy, George Glen, whose response to seeing a peg-legged pirate in a children’s book was to say to his mom, “Well he only has one leg, so he must be an athlete.”