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The International Paralympic Committee & the regulatory bodies of disability sport

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Origins of the Paralympic movement

Sir Ludwig Guttmann is widely considered to be the founder of the Paralympic movement, (Scruton, 1998). A neurosurgeon at the Stoke Mandeville spinal injuries unit in Aylesbury, he used sport as part of a rehabilitation programme to help the recovery of paraplegic patients, encouraging them to take part in archery and wheelchair polo in order to build not only their upper body strength but also their self-esteem. Patients who had experienced feelings of hopelessness soon began to feel more positive under this regime.

The first annual sports day for disabled people - more commonly known as the Stoke Mandeville Games - coincided with the London Olympics of 1948.  It has been suggested that this was no coincidence (Brittain, 2010. p-9) though other researchers think the timing was ‘more by chance than design’ (Bailey, 2008. p-18). Whatever the intention behind its inauguration, the Stoke Mandeville Games saw a steady growth from 1948 onwards, especially when other sports such as netball and basketball were included. More importantly, over the next three years, the number of competing athletes also increased and by 1952, the Games took their first steps at international level by allowing the entry of a Dutch spinal injuries team. By 1953, the competing nations included Australia, Canada, Finland, France and Israel, and as demand for international disability sporting events burgeoned, it became clear that systematic direction was needed to steer the embryonic movement and to establish the appropriate rules and regulations.  

The birth of the IPC

The Stoke Mandeville Games were organised to a sophisticated standard by the International Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Sports Federation (ISMWSF), which was one of the earliest organisations to be involved in creating standards for disability sport. It was a pioneer in creating classification systems to accommodate the various types of disability in sporting competition, and its rules provided a solid foundation for future refinement. The ISMWSF was also the first organisation to introduce services and facilities dedicated to disabled athletes.

The early development of disability sport focused principally on paraplegic athletes, but in 1964 the International Sports Organisation for the Disabled (ISOD) was set up  to provide sporting opportunities for athletes with other impairment conditions, including varying degrees of cerebral palsy, and amputations. The organisation started slowly, mainly due to its inexperience, and it struggled to form international links with other bodies, but its progress was furthered during the years from 1968 to 1979 by the leadership of Sir Ludwig Guttmann who worked to bring the ISOD and the ISMWSF together in a closer working relationship. Both organisations shared the facilities and the expertise of staff at Stoke Mandeville, and successfully staged joint competitions throughout the 1970s and 1980s with more sports - like badminton and football – added to the list of regulated events.

The organisational development of disabled sport throughout these decades has been described as: ‘significant but isolated’ (Bailey, 2008) partly due to disagreements between the ruling bodies as to their rights and responsibilities. At Sir Ludwig Guttmann’s instigation, talks were held in 1979 between members of each body with the aim of allowing the ISOD to take over as umbrella organisation and organising committee for the Paralympic Games and disability sport more generally. However, it was not until the death of Sir Ludwig in 1982, that a new-found willingness from all parties to push for a single international organisation became evident. At this time, Mr Avronsaart (President of ISOD) invited IBSA, ISMWSF and CP-ISRA to attend a meeting to discuss the issue, and it was agreed that all the organisations involved in disabled sport should form a co-operative committee, with Presidents being elected on a rotational basis, thereby giving each organisation a chance to lead the Paralympic movement. By 1984, this body became known as the International Co-ordinating Committee (ICC). The ICC had two designated aims: to negotiate with the IOC on the behalf of disabled athletes and to organise and secure the future of athletes and disability sport competitions (Howe: 2008. p-43).

Although the ICC’s reign was short lived, its members agreed that efforts should be directed towards a sustainable re-structuring of its organisational framework, based on national representation. A seminar held at Arnhem in 1987 was attended by representatives from 39 countries and from 106 national and international disability organisations. The proposed changes included a reformed central governing body that would take charge of all aspects of Paralympic sport, and which would be responsible for the organisation and promotion of disability sporting competitions at both regional and international levels. Representation of the athletes themselves on the bodies was an important new aspect of the reorganisation. However, Howe suggests that the athletes’ representative body has relatively little opportunity of influencing IPC policy (Howe, 2008. p-44).

A further amendment to the ICC’s constitution was made in Dusseldorf in September 1989, where the decision was made to change the name of the ICC to the IPC, and it was under this designation that the organisation took responsibility for the Barcelona Games of 1992. These Games would also continue the practice (readopted at the Seoul Olympics of 1988) of holding the Paralympics and Olympics in the same city. Such successes move Bailey to describe this period as a ‘turning point’. (Bailey, 2008. p-91) From now on, the Paralympic Games were to go global. 

Currently, the General Assembly of the IPC takes place every two years (in the year between the summer and winter Games), and acts as the highest decision-making authority. There is also a Governing Board which is responsible for overseeing the whole assembly, as well as having control of budgets, accounts, rules and regulations, and the Paralympic Games itself.

To this day, the IPC remains the only multi-disability organisation with the right to govern and organise the summer and winter Paralympic Games, as well as regional and international competitions for disabled athletes.

Participating bodies

The regulatory bodies for the Paralympic Games, and for disability sport more generally, have developed over the last sixty years out of a group of specific impairment organisations. Six groups were represented in the International Organisation of Sport for the Disabled (IOSD) until 2003 when the ISMWSF merged with ISOD to create the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports Federation (IWAS). There are now five main IOSDs recognised as members by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). They are:

  • IWAS
  • The International Blind Sports Association (IBSA)
  • The Cerebral Palsy International Sports and Recreation Association (CP-ISRA)
  • The International Sports Federation for People with Intellectual Disability (INAS-FID)
  • The Comité International des Sports des Sourds (CISS)

Each of the above organisations is responsible for its own impairment group and for the staging of its own regional and international games. The competitions themselves are over-seen by the IPC because they provide the opportunity for aspiring Paralympic athletes to compete and to gain experience at regional and international level. There are exceptions: athletes from the CISS do not compete at the Paralympics, due to regulations that require athletes with hearing impediments to compete at their own games (the Deaflympics). Athletes from INAS-FID are also currently banned from competing at the Paralympics because of the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games eligibility scandal. However efforts are being made, in collaboration with the IPC, to revoke this decision.

The issue of national representation has been addressed by giving greater responsibility to the National Paralympic Committees (NPC) which represent the teams competing at the games (for example it is the British Paralympic Association which is responsible for selecting, preparing, funding and managing team Great Britain at each Paralympics). Structural changes aside, the Paralympic movement has also benefited from an enhanced partnership between the IPC and IOC. An original agreement made in 2000 was modified in 2005 to include an increase in payments made to the IPC with regard to income from broadcasting, and a resolution of various marketing issues. A further agreement was made in 2006, which saw the announcement of IOC support for the Paralympic Games and the renewal of co-operation in securing the ‘practice of one bid, one city’ (, through to the summer and winter Games of 2016. Not only do such agreements ensure the growth of the Paralympics but in the words of IOC President, Jacques Rogge they reaffirm a mutual vision which he describes as one of the ‘fundamental principles of Olympism’.

Despite the Games’ modern day success, the IPC, like all major organisations, faces controversy over a number of issues, notably with regard to the debates surrounding classification and identity. Unlike most other sporting events, disability sport competitions have to be designed to take into account the varying degrees of disability possessed by the athletes, while presenting a ‘level playing field’ and an exciting spectacle. To some degree the IPC has been successful in finding this balance; however controversies inevitably arise, and cases exist where athletes who do not fit easily into the established categories are forced to withdraw or to change their particular sporting event. To address this issue the IPC adopts two types of classification systems. One is a general system which determines the degree of impairment, and the second is a functional system which evaluates an athlete’s ability to participate in a particular sport (for example: the level of ability to catch or throw in wheelchair basketball). According to Brittain, the purpose of general classification is to decide which impairment group can compete in a particular sport; and which individual athletes, with which impairments and which levels of impairment, may compete against each other in a particular event (Brittain, 2010. p-97).

The final decision is carried out by a panel of classifiers using a complicated array of medical and physical examinations. Only on successful completion of the tests is the athlete then able to compete. However, there is a fear among organisers that Paralympic audiences are becoming confused by the complexity of the classification system, and they are attempting to make the process as transparent as possible.

The Paralympic Games have grown from their humble beginnings at Stoke Mandeville to become one of the most successful global sporting competitions, an achievement which would not have been possible without the work of the organisations described above which each helped to shape and influence the development of the Games. There is still a great deal of work to do, however, in terms of changing attitudes and removing prejudices, and by so doing to make the Paralympics more marketable as a commodity. Greater exposure to television coverage in particular will serve to highlight the professionalism and the dedication of the athletes, a key factor in eliminating the old stereotypes.





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