Beijing Olympics

Press Association via AP
USA's paralympic swimmer Jessica Long

The Beijing Paralympics

September 05, 2008
by Liz Colville
Originally conceived as a venue for injured veterans, today’s Paralympic Games are an opportunity for athletes with disabilities to employ their physical talents and competitive spirit to earn medals and achieve victory.

How it All Began

The Paralympics were created in 1948 by Sir Ludwig Guttmann, a leading German Jewish neurosurgeon who resettled in England in 1939 to escape Nazi persecution. The first Games were held for a handful of English World War II veterans suffering from spinal cord injury. At the second event four years later, the Netherlands joined the competition; thereafter the Paralympics were an international event, with Rome hosting the first “Olympic style” games for disabled athletes in 1960. Today, more than 3,800 participants from nearly 140 countries compete. Held in the same year and venue as the Olympic Games, the Paralympics comprise “elite sport events for athletes from six different disability groups” with an emphasis on the “participants’ athletic achievements rather than their disability.”

In recent years, sports for those with disabilities have also served as an area of study for sports scientists. The official site of the Beijing Paralympics explains that sports science “found its application in disability sport” around the 1970s, since it is the “study of the human movement with the aim to improve the sporting performance.” The IPC established a Sports Science committee in the 1980s devoted to studying sports science through the lens of the Paralympics, and the relationship is in many ways a mutual one.

U.S. Gold Hopefuls

Since the founding of the Games, war veterans have played a crucial role. Their physical strength, previously tested in training and in battle, has made them prime contenders in a range of Paralympic sports. A recent Time magazine article looks at some of the American vets vying for medals at the Beijing Paralympics. They include Scott Winkler, a former high school sprinter who incurred a spinal injury in the course of his 2003 military duty in Tikrit, Iraq, and discovered during his rehabilitation that he “could not only throw the shot put and discus, but he could throw them well.”

Time notes that at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, there is also a Paralympic training camp, established by Gulf War veteran John Register, who has helped athletes like Winkler. Register won silver in the long jump event at the Sydney Paralympics and started the Paralympic Military Sports Camp in 2005. Register predicts that, thanks in no small part to his camp, U.S. vets will make up a large contingent of Paralympic athletes by 2012.

Watch Out, Phelps

Another serious U.S. contender at the Beijing Paralympics is swimmer Jessica Long, a young Baltimore native who shares her local fan base with Olympian Michael Phelps. Long competed at the Athens Paralympics, where she won three gold medals at the age of 14. She is decorated in and out of the pool, having won such prestigious awards as the Sullivan Award, bestowed upon the nation’s premier amateur athlete. Long was born without fibula bones in her legs; her legs were amputated below the knee when she was 18 months old. At age 10, she began her career in swimming.

When a Disability is Half the Battle

For Laura Schwanger, life often consists of rolling with the punches. An army vet who contracted multiple sclerosis (MS) at a young age, Schwanger went on to become a three-time Paralympian in track and field, racking up 11 medals in the process. After retiring from competition, the then-38-year-old was diagnosed with breast cancer during a routine mammogram. Though rounds of chemotherapy and radiation left her weak, she took up rowing to get herself back into shape, having heard of its benefits to breast cancer patients. A two-day-a-week rowing club turned into earning an arms-only rowing classification, serious competitions and finally, a trip to Beijing for her fourth Paralympics. The U.S. Paralympic Team Web site chronicles Schwanger’s journey.

Read more impressive stories about the U.S. Paralympic team in the “Athletes” section of the team’s official site.

Tracking the Beijing Paralympics

Visit the homepage of the Beijing Paralympics for a list of Paralympic sports, schedules, results and athlete bios.

To watch the events, tune in to Universal Sports online and Universal Sports TV, which will be covering the games in their entirety from September 6 to September 17. Schedules of programming are available in a press release on the U.S. Paralympic Team’s official Web site, and on the Universal Sports site. The broadcasts will cover the opening and closing ceremonies, extensive highlights and popular sports like swimming and track and field.

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