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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Paralympics Evolve to an Elite Level

ATLANTA -- When a disabled archer's arrow lit the Olympic cauldron in 1992, more was illuminated than Barcelona's night sky. As the Games began, so too began a link between the Olympics and Paralympics -- the worldwide athletic competition for people with physical disabilities.


That moment, perhaps the most splendid lighting of the cauldron ever, was strong evidence that sporting events once unrecognized by most able-bodied people had fallen into the mainstream of countries everywhere.


The 1996 Paralympics are the first to benefit from substantial corporate sponsorship. They will use most of Atlanta's Olympic venues for 17 sports and will showcase -- from Thursday through Aug. 25 -- an athletic community that has worked hard to shed a stigma.


"The emphasis is on the fact that these are athletes competing, not that these are disabled people competing," said Jean Driscoll, one of the world's top wheelchair racers who will compete in Atlanta. "That's a really important concept for people to understand."


The Paralympics have grown alongside a disabled movement that encompasses a wide variety of handicaps -- paralysis, visual impairment, amputation, cerebral palsy and others. Throughout the years, new guidelines have been established for those who may compete in the Games and numerous sports have been dropped to make way for others deemed more competitive.


The concept for the Games began in England in 1948 to provide a kind of athletic therapy for persons in wheelchairs. Held at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury with just a few athletes, the events were more about enhancing the quality of life for people with spinal cord injuries than about competition.


Twelve years later, the first Paralympics took place in Rome with 400 athletes from 23 countries. Athletes competed in archery, basketball, fencing, javelin, shotput and three swimming events. There also were three non-Olympic sports: dartchery, where competitors shot arrows into an oversized target; precision javelin, which required an athlete to arc the javelin into a target; and the Indian club throw for distance.


Subsequent Games sought the inclusion of people other than those who use wheelchairs. Sports organizations for various disabilities were formed, technology made competition for disabled athletes more viable and the number of athletes competing increased steadily.


The Olympics now include exhibition wheelchair races, and the U.S. Olympic Committee works closely with the Paralympic athletes. Seoul, then Barcelona, set a new standard for future Paralympiads by further aligning the Games with the Olympics. The 1996 Paralympics will include more than 3,500 athletes from 127 nations.


Even the athletes have evolved. Many Paralympians post times that rival those of Olympic athletes, such as Ajibola Adeoye's winning time of 10.72 seconds in the men's 100-meter dash in Barcelona. That's less than a second shy of the world record set at the 1996 Olympics by Canada's Donovan Bailey. Adeoye, from Nigeria, is a single-arm amputee.


Other athletes, such as Driscoll, have become well known even outside the disabled sports community. Driscoll, who has won the women's wheelchair division in the Boston Marathon the past seven years, competed in the Olympic 800-meter exhibition and took second to Louise Sauvage of Australia. Driscoll is one of a few Paralympians to have a sponsor, Ocean Spray.


For many, the Games are about two things: competing at an elite level and demonstrating to the world that athletes with disabilities are still athletes. The Paralympics have struggled to find their place and often are equated with the Special Olympics, a competition for people with developmental disabilities.


Athletes at the Paralympics are classified by disability, meaning an event such as the 100-meter dash will be run separately by athletes with arm amputations, leg amputations, paraplegia, etc. In some cases, where too few athletes are entered, events have been combined and athletes with dissimilar disabilities will be competing in the same race.