Athletes with High Support Needs at the Paralympic Games (Part 1)

Originally called athletes with severe disabilities, the term ‘severe disability’ led to concerns that it was laden with overly negative connotations that might prove detrimental to those involved. The new terminology of athletes with high support needs (AHSN) was, therefore, introduced in order to emphasise the support needs that all athletes require to make it to the very top in their sport (coaching, financial etc), whilst recognising that some athletes with disabilities have more intensive and possibly more specialised support needs than others. Such support might include a sighted guide for a blind athlete, both for in and out of competition assistance at a Paralympic Games where the built environment will be unfamiliar to the athlete and they may also need a guide to compete in events such as track events. There are two broad categories of AHSN – those with more severe physical disabilities and those who are blind or visually impaired to such an extent that they need a guide to assist them, not only for their sport, but for their everyday living needs. Although the many developments in classification over the years, combined with incomplete record keeping in the early years of the Paralympic Games, has meant that it is very difficult to accurately trace the participation of AHSN in the Games it is known that the first events for tetraplegic athletes were added to the programme inTokyo, 1964. AHSN with other physical disabilities and blind and visually impaired AHSN did not take part in the Summer Paralympic Games untilToronto, 1976. Some authors claim that there were demonstration events for blind athletes in Heidelberg, 1972, but no records of these can be found and the Director of Sports for these Games, Joerg Schmeckl, has no recollection of them (Schmeckl, 2008, personal communication).

The Squeeze on Athlete Numbers at the Paralympic Games

Following the introduction of athletes with amputations and visual impairments the total number of medals awarded inTorontorose from 575 inHeidelberg, 1972 to 1172 inToronto. With the addition of athletes with cerebral palsy inArnhemfour years later the total number awarded rose to 1601. The split site Games of 1984 in Stoke Mandeville,UKandLong Island,New York, as well as the addition of Les Autres athletes to the Games inNew York, effectively allowed for more athletes and more events at each venue and the total number of medals awarded at both venues combined hit an all-time high of 2767. InSeoul, 1988 with the Games finally returning to the Olympic host city and re-combining into one event the number of medals awarded dropped back to 2208. This return to the Olympic host city, which has continued ever since combined with a number of other issues and events appears to have had quite a major impact on the participation of AHSN in the years to come. These issues and events include:

  • Having the Games at the same host city venues as the Olympic Games very shortly after the Olympic Games allowed for direct comparison. For example, due to the classification system used inSeoulthere were twenty-one male and fourteen female 100m finals in athletics compared to one for each gender at the Olympic Games. In addition many of the events were straight finals with no heats necessary due to the limited number of athletes within a particular classification grouping. This lead to the perception amongst some that athletes only had to turn up at the Games to win a medal, which was totally at odds with the elite sporting model the movement had already begun moving towards.
  • In January 1987, at an ICC meeting inSeoul, the Seoul Paralympic Co-ordinating Committee (SPOC) had tried to get the number of athletes and Officials, previously agreed at 4000, cut to a total of 3000, citing financial and facility issues as the reason. Although this cut didn’t actually occur in the end it is clear from the minutes of the meeting that a formula had been devised to cut the number of athletes if necessary. The additional financial burden on Olympic host cities of also hosting the Paralympic Games would continue to be a source of pressure on the number of athletes allowed to participate in subsequent Games.
  • As part of the ongoing move towards an elite sport model minimum entry standards for Paralympic Games had already been in use since at leastArnhem, 1980. 

The combination of these three issues came to a real head for the first time inBarcelona, 1992. In an attempt to reduce the number of medals awarded and overcome the perception that an individual only had to turn up to win a medal a functional classification system was introduced in six sports for CP-ISRA, ISOD and ISMWSF athletes. According to Sherrill (1993) the balance of power between these three organisations and the way qualifying standards were worked out prevented many countries from taking CP athletes toBarcelona. This, in turn, impacted on other events due to the rule that an event had to contain athletes from at least three countries and two continents to be considered viable. This resulted in events either being integrated with others or deleted from the programme completely. The total number of medals awarded inBarcelonafell by over 500 from the previous Games to 1503. By Beijing 2008 this number had dropped to 1431. In part two of this post I will look at the impact this squeeze on athlete numbers and medals has had on athletes with high support needs.

Schmeckl, 2008; Personal Communication. Email from Jörg Schmeckl, 21 September 2008

Sherrill, C., 1993, Women with Disability, Paralympics and Reasoned Action Contact Theory, Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal, Vol. 2(2), pp. 51–60.



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