Athlete First – A history of the paralympic movement

by Steve Bailey Steve Bailey’s history of the Paralympic movement, Athlete First, is a dense but enjoyable account of an […]

by Steve Bailey

Steve Bailey’s history of the Paralympic movement, Athlete First, is a dense but enjoyable account of an exciting athletic tradition. The book begins by tracing the development of the Paralympic movement from the establishment of the first organized sports for people with disabilities through the 2004 Paralympic Games.

Bailey credits German neurosurgeon Ludwig Guttmann for establishing organized sports for people with disabilities. Guttmann, who founded the Stoke Mandeville Spinal Injuries Unit in 1944, had used sports in the rehabilitation process and saw the benefits of competition between people with similar injuries. The Stoke Mandeville games opened the same day as the 1948 London Olympics. Guttmann was also involved in the creation of the International Sports Organization for the Disabled, which provided competitive opportunities for people with disabilities other than spinal injuries.

Having separate organizations for people with different disabilities created a problem: groups were competing against one another for assistance from the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Bailey writes that the IOC was “instrumental in prompting confederacy among disability sports organizations.” In the end, the various groups got together to form the International Coordinating Committee of World Sports Organizations for the Disabled (ICC) in 1982. Their goal: “speaking with one voice.” The result became the Paralympic Games.

The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) was, “the principal force for the Paralympic Movement, identifying as its vision: ‘To enable Paralympic athletes to achieve sporting excellence and inspire and excite the world.’” In 2003, IPC introduced the new Paralympic motto: “Spirit in motion.”

Among the challenges IPC faces is classification of athletes such that athletes with similar disabilities compete against each other. Such classification has been an issue since Ludwig Guttmann organized sports for former spinal patients because it excludes people who don’t fit a category.

Bailey clearly views societal failings as a bigger barrier for people with disabilities than dealing with the physical condition itself. He writes, “Individuals’ impairments become a disability when the organization of society prevents them from participating fully.” He continues, “Effectively, society causes the disablement of those individuals who are impaired in some way. Inflexibility in organizational policies can be a barrier to enabling normal functioning of persons with a disability in society, as can cultural representations that patronize or dehumanize.” Bailey believes it is these barriers that should be disabled, and sports help to accomplish that. “The high profile Paralympic movement has served to force communities to address questions of accessibility and inclusion for persons with a disability.”

Bailey also cites the role of sports in creating community. Anyone who’s every watched sports teams compete has seen that camaraderie.

Though many people think the “para” in Paralympics refers to paraplegia, Bailey explains that it actually derives from Greek and Latin words meaning “alongside” and “similar” respectively. Use of the word “Olympic” began with Ludwig Guttmann in 1949, and at first was opposed by the IOC, which saw the word as its copyright. There have been a variety of names over the years, but Paralympics has been the official name since 1988.

Bailey notes that early development of organized sports for people with disabilities was impeded by the misperception that these sports were about rehabilitation rather than world championship competition between elite athletes. The Para-lympic Movement today is helping to dispel that myth.

Athlete First, copyright 2008, is published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd. of Chichester, West Sussex, England. Their email for orders is cs-books@wiley.co.uk

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