A short history of the term ‘Paralympic’

There is often confusion as to where the term ‘paralympic’ derives from. Girginov and Parry (2005) claim that it is a misconception that the word ‘paralympic’ derives from the term paraplegic. In its current modern-day usage this is true, but historically this claim is inaccurate. The earliest written use of the term appears in the summer issue of The Cord in 1951, when David Hinds, a Paraplegic at Stoke Mandeville hospital wrote an article entitled ‘Alice at the Paralympiad’, which was a skit on Alice in Wonderland. However, what this article does not explain is how the term came about. A possible clue comes from two articles in a special edition of The Cord celebrating ten years of the Spinal Unit in 1954. In one article Dora T. Bell, the physiotherapist attached to the unit, refers to the ‘Paraolympics of Stoke Mandeville’ and in a second article Ward Sister Merchant refers to the ‘Paraplegic Olympics’. It would appear then that this early usage of the term is an amalgamation of the words paraplegic and Olympics, which was shortened further to ‘Paralympics’, possibly because it is smoother and shorter to pronounce. What is also clear from the increasing usage of the term ‘paralympic’ by the media during the 1950s is that it was used to refer to all the Stoke Mandeville Games held annually from 1948–1959 as is reinforced by the heading in the New York Times of 21 August, 1960 which stated ‘US to send 24 Athletes to Rome for Annual ‘Paralympics’ Event’.

The deliberate linking of the Stoke Mandeville Games with the host city of the Olympic Games every fourth year had an almost immediate impact on press usage of the term Paralympics. A good example of this is the local newspaper, the Bucks Advertiser and Aylesbury News, the first paper to use the term Paralympic back in 1953. In reporting on the Games at Stoke Mandeville from 1961 to 1963 it reverted to describing them as the International Stoke Mandeville Games. It appears that once the much clearer link between the Stoke Mandeville Games and the Olympic Games had been made by moving them away from Stoke Mandeville to the same city chosen to host the Olympic Games the usage of the term ‘paralympic’, still in its ‘Paraplegic Olympics’ context, became much more specific. It now only referred to the edition of the International Stoke Mandeville Games held in the Olympic year.

The modern day usage of the term ‘paralympic’ came about as a result of the participation in the Games of impairment groups other than those with spinal cord injuries in Toronto in 1976. As they now included blind and visually impaired and amputee athletes they could no longer be called the International Stoke Mandeville Games, nor could the term ‘paralympic’ as it was then understood (Paraplegic Olympics) be applied. The next few versions of the Games used varying adaptations of the term Olympics for the Disabled, which led to quite heated discussions with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) over the use of Olympic terminology. In the end the IOC agreed to the use of the term ‘paralympic’ being used for the Games from 1988 onwards, where at the same time the Games finally returned to being hosted by the same city as the Olympic Games. A pattern that has occurred ever since. However, the use of the term ‘paralympic’ derives from the Greek preposition ‘para’ meaning ‘next to’ giving a meaning of parallel or next to the Olympic Games.

(Post taken from The Paralympic Games Explained, p. 15-16)

The Cord , published from 1947 to 1983, contained articles and advice of benefit to paraplegics everywhere.

For a more detailed explanation see Brittain, I. (2008) ‘The Evolution of the Paralympic Games’. In Benchmark Games: The Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games. Ed. by Cashman, R., and Darcy, S. Petersham, NSW: Walla Walla Press, 19-34

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