Some Awesome People

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Paralympics: 10 things you need to know

 28 August 2012

After the success of the London Olympics there's unprecedented excitement about the Paralympics. But what are the differences between the two sets of Games?

No Olympic rings

It may sound similar, and end in "lympic", but the Paralympics are not the Olympics. The iconic interlocking rings have no place here.

Instead there is the Agitos, the three swoops in red, green and blue that represent the Paralympic motto "spirit in motion".

The IOC and the IPC are different

The two Games - and the International Olympic Committee and International Paralympics Committee - are separate entities. The first international Paralympic Games took place in Rome, a week after the 1960 Summer Olympic Games were held there. In 1964, they were held in Tokyo, again just after the Olympics.

But in 1968, Mexico City, the host city of that year's Olympics, refused to host the Paralympics. They were instead held in Tel Aviv and from then until 1988, the Paralympics continued to be held in locations completely separate to the Olympics.

Then in 1988, Olympics hosts Seoul took on the Paralympics, and they have been held together ever since. In 2001, it became official, and now host cities have to bid for both.

There are rumours that one day the two might merge, but opinions are split on the merits of such a move.


Sport is only fun or competitive if you pit like against like.

At the Paralympics, you don't have a blind runner competing against one with cerebral palsy - but you may have a person with cerebral palsy competing against someone with restricted growth, which is perhaps a less obvious match.

In order to stream the athletes, they have to go through vigorous testing of function and movement from a sporting medical professional who then gives them a classification.

Swimming has 14 classes. S1-S10 are variations on physical impairments with 10 being least disabled - it covers everything from amputees and spinal cord injuries to someone with dwarfism. S11-S13 are allocated to visual impairments and S14 for those with an intellectual disability.

The S-class refers only to freestyle, backstroke and butterfly whereas SB is breast stroke and SM is individual medley.

An athlete classified as a 9 in freestyle could be a 10 in butterfly - you are classified according to the stroke you're using as swimming on your back could prove more challenging for you depending on your impairment mix. Classifications are also affected depending on whether you have the ability to dive in or start a race from within the pool.

The knock-on effect of having more classifications is that this year's Paralympic swimming as a whole has 148 gold medals up for grabs compared with 34 at the Olympics.

Classifications can be controversial. "There are some who try to cheat their class," says former Paralympian Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson. "When they deliberately cheat it's the same as taking drugs. But some do just fall one side or other of a line and can move up and down between classes."

Sports that are the same but different

Although there are sports that only disabled people play, you'll recognise most of the events at the Paralympics.

Swimming, cycling and athletics will happen in a similar way to their Olympic equivalents, albeit split into many different classifications, and with added prosthetics, wheelchairs and human guides.

Spectators at sports like wheelchair rugby, sitting volleyball and blind football, who are familiar with their able-bodied equivalents, will quickly realise that the Paralympic versions bear little resemblance to the sports they know and love.

The ball used in blind football is less bouncy than a regular one and contains ball bearings to make it audible.

It is played on a hard surface by two teams of five players. The area of play is smaller than in regular football and is surrounded by boards. The boards not only stop the ball from going out, but also reflect sounds from the ball and from footsteps, which helps players to orientate themselves on the pitch.

Outfield players, blind or partially sighted, wear eye covers to level the playing field. The goalkeeper is fully sighted but is not allowed to leave his area. A "guide", also sighted, directs players from behind the goal.

In the absence of visual communication between players, they use specific terms. Shouts of "voy" - the Spanish word literally meaning "I go" but idiomatically "I'm here" - act as a warning that one player is about to tackle another. Teams rely heavily on numerous audible clues, so spectators must stay silent during play.

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