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Spotlight On: Paralympics 101

It is officially the start of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, which can only mean one thing...

It’s a Paralympics takeover here at That’s So Chronic HQ!

Perhaps you - like me not so long ago - have always known that the Paralympic Games were an exciting sporting event that took place every four years, but you aren’t really too sure what goes into making the Paralympics work. Well, have no fear! I’m here to help.

This week a Spotlight On: Paralympics 101 episode went up over on That's So Chronic which explains the ins and outs of the Paralympics, but I also wanted to bring you this written post as well.

Now it wouldn’t be a deep dive into the Paralympics without a bit of history, so let’s rewind to 1944…


We are in Great Britain, and Dr. Ludwig Guttmann has opened a spinal injuries centre at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Dr. Guttmann was finding sports to be an essential part of his patients’ rehabilitation and it was here that rehabilitation sport was evolving into recreational sport and, unsurprisingly, competitive sport. Because that’s what sport is all about, right? A friendly bit of competition!

We then fast forward four years to 29 July 1948. On the day of the Opening Ceremony at the London 1948 Olympic Games, Dr. Guttmann organised the first competition for wheelchair athletes. The athletes took part in archery and there were 16 injured servicemen and women involved. Dr. Guttmann aptly named this competition the Stoke Mandeville Games.

Fast-forwarding another four years, and word had gotten out. In 1952 athletes from the Netherlands also joined the movement and the International Stoke Mandeville Games were founded.

It took eight years after that, but in 1960 in Rome, Italy, the International Stoke Mandeville Games officially became the Paralympic Games. During this event, 400 Para athletes competed from a whopping 23 countries!

From then onwards the Paralympic Games were held every four years.

Side note: In case you’re wondering, it was in 1976 when the first Paralympic Winter Games were held in Sweden!

We fast forward another eight years to the Rome 1960 Paralympic Games, and that’s when a Paralympics New Zealand team entered the competition. Our team consisted of 16 Para athletes (15 males and 1 female) and we competed in seven sports: Para archery, Para athletics, Para lawn bowls, Para fencing, Para powerlifting, Para table tennis, and Para swimming. We won four medals at these games (1 gold, 2 silvers, and 1 bronze) remarkably all by the same Para athlete. It was in Para athletics and Para swimming, and was none other than Eve Rimmer. Our 1 female Para athlete! I love this.

ack and white team photo of the first NZ Paralympic Team
Image: Paralympics NZ |

black and white photo of NZ Paralympic Team entering behind a hand held sign that says New Zealand during the opening ceremony
Image: Paralympics NZ |

black and white photo of Eve Rimmer in her wheelchair with medals around her neck. She is smiling
Image: Wikipedia

Which then brings us up to now. Tuesday 24 August 2021. The opening day of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. This year the Paralympics welcomes 4,400 Para athletes from 160 countries! I wonder what Dr. Guttmann would say now!



One of the biggest misconceptions I have discovered during my research into people’s understandings of the Paralympics is what the word “Paralympic” even means.

The word “Paralympic” derives from the Greek preposition “para” which means beside or alongside, and the word “Olympic.” This shows that the Paralympics are the parallel Games to the Olympics, and illustrates how the two movements exist side-by-side.

So therefore the “para” in “Paralympics” does not mean paraplegic. In fact, it’s got nothing to do with this! This misconception can be detrimental to what the Paralympic Games are all about.

Shireen Sapiro - a former South African Paralympian, gold medalist, and journalist - explains this wonderfully over in an Instagram post, which I’ll link below if you want to have a read:

Speaking of parallel, an agreement between the International Paralympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee was made in 1988 during the Summer Games in Korea, and the Winter Games in France in 1992, that the Paralympic and Olympic Games would always take part in the same city. It makes sense and enhances the message of both movements operating alongside one another.



Here’s a list of the sports at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics:

(The sports in bold are sports we have New Zealanders competing in!)

Para Archery

Dr. Guttmann would be pleased to see this is still here!

Para Athletics

Para Badminton

one of the two new additions for Tokyo 2020!


this is a sport I wasn’t super familiar with. It has origins in ancient Greece where players would throw large stones at a small target. I also discovered that Boccia is one of only two sports that does not have an Olympic counterpart.

Para Canoe

Para Cycling (road and track)


Football 5-a-side


easily one of the sports I am the most excited about watching this year! Goalball is played by athletes with visual impairments using a ball with bells inside. I hope that we get to see some of the Goalball events with the coverage here in New Zealand!


Para Powerlifting

Para Rowing

Shooting Para Sport

Sitting Volleyball

Para Swimming

Para Table Tennis

Para Taekwondo

this is also new for Tokyo 2020!

Para Triathlon

Wheelchair Basketball

Wheelchair Fencing

Wheelchair Rugby

Go the Wheel Blacks!

Wheelchair Tennis

If you're interested in learning more about these sports I recommend checking out this page, where you can learn about the rules and there are some cool explainer videos too!



Black background with white and gold text: One Team One Spirit
Image: Paralympics NZ |

This year we have 29 Para athletes representing New Zealand in Tokyo over six different sports. They are swimming, wheelchair rugby, athletics, cycling, canoe, and shooting. A full list of athletes can be found here or on the NZ Team app powered by ANZ.

New Zealand won 21 medals back in Rio 2016, so we will wait and see with bated breath how we get on this year!



If listening to information is more your cup of tea, then I do recommend tuning into the Spotlight On: Paralympics 101 episode from now, as the classification process does take a little bit of time to get your head around, but it’s definitely worth knowing so you get a better understanding of how the Paralympics works.

The classification system is incredibly important and it’s essentially a system that has been put in place to determine which athletes are eligible to compete in a sport, and then how Para athletes are grouped for competition.

In a nutshell, Para athletes are grouped by the degree of activity limitation resulting from the impairment. These classifications have to be quite specific because different sports will require different activities, and it’s important for the integrity and credibility of the competition that the Para athletes are classified before competing.

To begin with, there are 10 eligible impairments that fall into three distinct groups. Put super simply these are physical, vision, and intellectual impairments and athletes must have at least 1 of the 10 eligible impairments to be eligible.


Here’s a list of the 10 Eligible Impairment Types in the Paralympic Movement

Impaired Muscle Power

Athletes with Impaired Muscle Power have a Health Condition that either reduces or eliminates their ability to voluntarily contract their muscles in order to move or to generate force. Examples of an Underlying Health Condition that may lead to Impaired Muscle Power include spinal cord injury (complete or incomplete, tetra-or paraplegia or paraparesis), muscular dystrophy, post-polio syndrome and spina bifida.

Impaired Passive Range of Movement

Athletes with Impaired Passive Range of Movement have a restriction or a lack of passive movement in one or more joints. Examples of an Underlying Health Condition that may lead to Impaired Passive Range of Movement include arthrogryposis and contracture resulting from chronic joint immobilisation or trauma affecting a joint.

Limb Deficiency

Athletes with Limb Deficiency have total or partial absence of bones or joints as a consequence of: trauma (for example traumatic amputation), illness (for example amputation due to bone cancer) or congenital limb deficiency (for example dysmelia).

Leg Length Difference

Athletes with Leg Length Difference have a difference in the length of their legs which could be as a result of a disturbance of limb growth, or as a result of trauma.

Short Stature

Athletes with Short Stature have a reduced length in the bones of the upper limbs, lower limbs and/or trunk. Examples of an Underlying Health Condition that may lead to Short Stature include achondroplasia, growth hormone dysfunction, and osteogenesis imperfecta.


Athletes with Hypertonia have an increase in muscle tension and a reduced ability of a muscle to stretch caused by damage to the central nervous system. Examples of an Underlying Health Condition that may lead to Hypertonia include cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury and stroke.


Athletes with Ataxia have uncoordinated movements caused by damage to the central nervous system.

Examples of an Underlying Health Condition that may lead to Ataxia this could include cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, stroke, and something I know all too well, multiple sclerosis.


Athletes with Athetosis have continual slow involuntary movements. Examples of an Underlying Health Condition that may lead to Athetosis include cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury and stroke.

Vision Impairment

Athletes with Vision Impairment this could be reduced, or no vision caused by damage to the eye structure, optical nerves or optical pathways, or visual cortex of the brain. Examples of an Underlying Health Condition that may lead to Vision Impairment include retinitis pigmentosa and diabetic retinopathy.

Intellectual Impairment

Athletes with an Intellectual Impairment have a restriction in intellectual functioning and adaptive behaviour in which affects conceptual, social and practical adaptive skills required for everyday life. This Impairment must be present before the age of 18.


For some sports, you can compete no matter what of the ten eligible impairments you fall under, some sports are open to a few of the ten, and others are specific to only one eligible impairment. An example of this is the sport goalball, where only Para athletes with vision impairment are eligible to compete.

This then leads us back to the importance of classifications. Since different sports require different abilities, each sport logically needs its own classification system. An example used in the International Paralympic Committee’s official explanatory guide is that an impairment of the arms affects performance in a running event to a lesser extent than it would in a swimming event, hence needing a different classification.

An interesting point to explain as well is that when we are talking about vision impairment there is a general structure used for the classification of these athletes. This is:

B1: The clarity of these athletes’ vision is very low and/ or they have no light perception.

B2: Athletes with a B2 sport class have a better clarity of vision than athletes competing in the B1 sport class and/ or a visual field of less than 10 degrees diameter.

B3: Athletes with a B3 sport class have the least severe vision impairment eligible for Paralympic sport. They have a better clarity of vision than athletes competing in the B2 sport class and/or a visual field of less than 40 degrees diameter

Then... The sport class.

After an athlete has been given the all clear that they are eligible for a sport, a classification panel will assess which sport class they will compete in. Some sports have only one sport class, others (for example Para athletics which has Para athletes from all ten eligible impairments) could have up to 50 sport classes!

A sport class is a system that groups athletes with similar activity limitations together for competition, which means that not every sport class will consist of people with the same eligible impairment. It’s all to do with the activity limitations… I hope this is making sense!

The classification panel is made up of a minimum of two classifiers, who are trained experts. They could be: physicians, physiotherapists, coaches, sports scientists, psychologists, ophthalmologists… Basically all of the “gists”! They must have knowledge and awareness about the impairments and the impact they have on the respective sports.

As you can probably imagine, the classification process is huge, and it’s obviously really important. Another piece of interesting information that I uncovered during my research is that Para athletes may be classified many times throughout their careers because as we all know, our bodies can change.

If you would like to see a list of all of the different classifications, I recommend this link here.

It’s also important that the Paralympians complete the classification process before competing at the Paralympics. However, in 2014, the ‘zero classification policy’ was introduced as a strategic decision to minimise the Games-time classifications. This would help reduce the impact of any last minute changes, which does make sense, as if the athletes suddenly didn’t qualify for the classification they were thinking they would, then it definitely impacts the operational aspect and schedule of the Games.

With that being said, old mate Covid has other ideas for Tokyo 2020. It was becoming increasingly obvious that Para athletes were finding that getting classified before arriving in Tokyo to be difficult due to the restrictions of the pandemic. So a decision was made to temporarily suspend this ban. This year Para athletes in ten eligible sports would be able to be classified while in Tokyo at the Games.



When I asked if anyone on Instagram had any questions about the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics I did get some messages in regards to the pandemic and what that means for this year’s Paralympic Games. The Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee has released guidelines (with all of the usual suspects: hand washing, mask use, physical distancing etc.) but Paralympics NZ has decided to implement extra measures for the fully vaccinated New Zealand team. This includes splitting the team into bubbles aligned with their sports, across three accommodation sites, as well as deciding to forfeit attending the Opening Ceremony and hold their own celebration instead.

Understandably, things will look and feel a little different this year, especially due to the decision from the International Paralympic Committee, Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee, Tokyo Metropolitan Government, and the Government of Japan that in light of the state of emergency being extended, there will be no spectators. The joint statement said, “We very much regret that this situation has impacted the Paralympic Games… we sincerely apologise to all ticket buyers who were looking forward to watching the Games at the venues. We hope you understand that these measures are unavoidable and being implemented in order to prevent the spread of infection."

"Everyone is encouraged to watch the Games at home.”

And watch the Games at home we shall! Well, I know I will be!



If you’re in New Zealand you can watch the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games on TVNZ Duke (Freeview 13, Sky 23) and live streamed on TVNZ on Demand.

There is also a highlights programme at 9AM over on TVNZ1, which you can also stream on TVNZ OnDemand and

If you're reading from somewhere else in the world, don't worry! Chances are you can still watch too. Head to to find your country's official broadcast provider.



I’m going to leave you with this final important message from Andrew Parsons, the President of the Paralympic International Committee:

Wishing all athletes all the best for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, especially the NZ Team! Let's do this!


That's So Chronic is a podcast produced and hosted by performer, writer and MS-er Jess Brien. Join her each week as she interviews guests from all around the world that are thriving - and sometimes only just surviving - with chronic illnesses, life changing injuries, and potentially disastrous diagnoses, as well as sharing conversational style episodes and everything and anything in our That's So Chronic world. Available on apple podcasts, spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.


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