The Britain Paralympic Team enters the 1960 Rome Paralympic opening ceremony.
Forty-six years before two-time Paralympian Ray Martin was even born, six athletes in England took part in an archery competition that would end up changing his life.
It was in 1948 that Sir Ludwig Guttmann, a Jewish neurosurgeon who escaped Nazi Germany, organized the very first Stoke Mandeville Games at the hospital where he’d established the National Spinal Injuries Centre at the request of the British government. Those games, for wounded veterans and in which athletes competed only in archery, were the precursor to the Paralympics.
The Paralympic movement became official in 1960 when the Stoke Mandeville Games were held alongside the Olympic Games in Rome with a total of 400 wheelchair athletes from 23 countries competing in eight sports.
Fifty-two years later, Martin made his Paralympic debut in London 2012, winning four gold medals in track and field as an 18-year-old.
“I’d say (the Paralympics) changed my life completely,” said Martin, who would go on to win two more gold medals plus one silver in Rio in 2016. “It’s a huge part of who I am, especially being a young adult in my late teens and early 20s. It’s really afforded me some personal growth, I would say, because aside from the athletic achievements I think there are things about being a Paralympian that people don’t talk about or realize because you do need to be a responsible adult. You’re a professional. Being a Paralympian has really helped me grow as a person.”
After the 1960 Paralympics, the movement showed steady growth.
Wheelchair racing made its debut in 1964, and then in 1968 in Tel Aviv participation jumped to 750 athletes from 29 countries competing in 10 sports with new sports including lawn bowling and women’s wheelchair basketball.
By 1972 there were nearly 1,000 athletes from 43 countries competing and in 1976 the first Paralympic Winter Games were held in Sweden with 53 amputee and visually impaired athletes from 16 countries competing in two sports: alpine skiing and Nordic skiing.
The Summer Paralympics were also held that year in Toronto and, for the first time ever, amputee and visually impaired athletes joined the wheelchair athletes to form a contingent totaling 1,657 athletes from 40 countries competing in 13 sports.
The 1980s saw continued increases, especially in the Winter Paralympics, which saw a 40 percent jump in participation in 1980 compared to 1976 and grew to include ice sledge racing along with skiing. The 1984 Winter Games included athletes with cerebral palsy for the first time.
The Summer Games that year were split into two, with New York hosting visually impaired and amputee athletes as well as those with cerebral palsy and the Stoke Mandeville Games hosting wheelchair athletes.
Sit skiing was introduced to the Winter Paralympics for the first time in 1988 in both alpine and Nordic skiing in Innsbruck, and that summer in Seoul, Paralympic sports were contested at the same venues used for the Olympic Games for the first time ever.
The Olympics and Paralympics have shared locations and venues ever since.
As both the Summer and Winter Paralympics continued to grow throughout the 1990s, sports such as sled hockey debuted and the Paralympics were televised in the United States for the first time in 1996 with the Games in Atlanta. Wheelchair curling made its winter debut in the 2000s, and in Beijing in 2008 the Paralympics saw not only its highest participation, with 3,957 athletes from 146 countries, but also had the highest number of television and internet viewership ever at 3.8 billion watching.
When Martin made his Paralympic debut in London in 2012, he said, every track and field session was sold out every single day. It was a high bar to set, and one that he hasn’t experienced since, he said, but it showed what was possible.
“The changes I’ve seen over the years have been, I would call it slow and steady,” he said. “Especially in the U.S., our coverage of the Paralympic Games has certainly gone up. Not too long ago they had a Rio recap on one of the NBC networks and all that stuff really does help to contribute to the awareness of what the Paralympics are.”
Martin remembers during 2014 and the Winter Paralympics in Sochi he was at a sports bar having lunch with friends and they were showing the gold medal sled hockey game live on television.
“That was really cool,” he said. “We didn’t ask them to play it.”
Martin has also noticed that more people are aware of the Paralympics now than when he first started. A lot, he said, know some of the major names of Paralympic sports such as Tatyana McFadden and Jessica Long.
“People are aware of who they are, and that’s a pretty good start,” he said. “They know what the difference is between the Paralympics and Special Olympics, which couldn’t be said in 2010 or 2011.”
The most recent Winter Paralympics in PyeongChang saw a record 567 athletes from 49 delegations competing in 80 medal events across six sports. Four countries — China, Croatia, Kazakhstan and South Korea — won their first-ever medals at the Winter Paralympics.
There are expected to be 4,400 athletes competing in 539 medal events in 22 sports, including badminton and taekwondo for the first time ever, in Tokyo in 2021.
The more exposure the better for the disability community in general, Martin said.
“It really has a ripple effect in terms of making people aware that disability is a thing, but that it doesn’t mean the people are necessarily unable to do most things that typical, able-bodied people would do, such as track and field or basketball. Just having that put in front of you in the form of the Paralympic Games sets a very high performance standard and it really does make people stop and say, ‘Huh.’”