Canadians found plenty to be inspired about during the recent Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. But there’s still more inspiration ahead as the 2016 Paralympics take the stage in Rio.
Until Sept. 18, more than 4,300 athletes from 160 countries are competing in 22 sports as the Paralympic Games showcases athletes who, like their Olympic counterparts, have strived for athletic excellence, but have had to overcome various physical impairments in the process.
These Games are a testament to inclusion and represent more than a century of work to provide sports opportunities for everyone. The Paralymic Games website points out that the first sports clubs for the deaf were operating in Berlin as early as 1888. But the movement toward inclusion in the sports realm really began to pick up steam after the Second World War.
At the 1948 Olympic Games in London, an archery competition for wheelchair athletes was organized, featuring 16 injured servicemen and women. In 1952, ex-servicemen from the Netherlands joined the movement and the International Stoke Mandeville Games were created. These Games evolved into the Paralympic Games which debuted in Rome in 1960, involving 400 athletes from 23 countries.
The International Sport Organization for the Disabled (IOSD) was formed in 1964 and worked to remove barriers for the athletes it represented. The IOSD pushed for inclusion of blind and amputee athletes at the 1976 Paralympics in Toronto, and to add athletes with cerebral palsy at the 1980 Games in Arnhem, Netherlands. The Paralympic Winter Games came onto the scene in 1976 at Ornskoldsvik, Sweden.
The event’s name denotes the fact this event for disabled athletes runs parallel to the Olympic Games, both summer and winter versions. The Paralympics became a truly parallel event in 1988 when the Games immediately followed the Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea, using the same Olympic venues, and the two sets of Games have remained linked since that time.
Over the years, it has attracted increasing numbers of competitors. The event in Rio will feature approximately 1,650 female athletes, an almost 10 per cent increase from 2012 Games in London and more than double the number of women who participated at the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta.
The Canadian contingent at last Wednesday’s opening ceremonies in Rio featured 162 athletes, including southern Alberta swimmer Zach McAllister, a participant in the London Paralympic Games in 2012. And while they are seeking athletic success just as their Olympic counterparts do, these athletes are also working to promote the broader cause of inclusiveness. These athletes, though they don’t garner the media attention of the Olympians, are deserving of praise. They, too, have displayed immense determination and dedication in reaching the elite level of their chosen sports, and they have done so while having to also overcome the additional hurdles posed by their particular impairments.
In that way, the Paralympic athletes can be an inspiration to all of us. They are a testament to what can be accomplished if we don’t allow obstacles to stop us from reaching our goals. They also help to shine a light on the issue of inclusiveness in our societies at large, not only in a sports context, and the need to remove barriers that hinder achieving that goal.
These athletes won’t be featured in non-stop media coverage the way the Olympians were a couple of weeks earlier, but if we take the time to notice, we’re sure to find inspiration in these remarkable people.