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The Paralympics, Special Oympics and a Deaflympics?

October 22nd, 2008 · No Comments

On September 6, following the Beijing Olympics this summer, the Paralympics commenced. However, I’ve hardly found anyone who knows anything about the Paralympics now that I’m back on US soil. More so, it’s often confused with the Special Olympics. This no doubt is due to the limited coverage the Paralympics got here in the United States. NBC did cover the Para- Games, however, the channel was buried if viewers had a special channel package at all. The Times gets the most kudos for its coverage but still nothing compares to the Chinese’s efforts. I’m happy to report that China kept its word on treating the Paralympics with equal importance as the Olympics. There was an entire television channel in the single digits dedicated to reporting the Paralympic Games, accessible to everyone. After the Olympic Closing Ceremony it seemed as if overnight, Beijing, which was plastered with Olympic banners, flags, and billboards, was re-plastered with the same signage but adorned with promoting the Paralympics.

I had the wonderful honor to interview track and field Paralympians for the Paralympic News Service at the Bird’s Nest. I was awestruck multiple times just watching these athletes perform given their disabilities. My favorite races to watch by far were the blind runners who ran with guides (I’ll write more on this later). However, the Paralympics truly is about focusing on athletic accomplishments, so the athlete’s disabilities weren’t questions asked in interviews. Questions focused on their strategy, technique, weather conditions, how they felt or what made that race unique. While I thought that the disabilities may have been an elephant in the room, I was completely wrong in every way. Although as cliché as it sounds, they’re regular people with extraordinary athletic abilities.

With that said, I’d like to take this chance to clarify what the difference is among the Paralympics, Special Olympics…and yes, there’s also a Deaflympics.

The Special Olympics

The Special Olympics is the most familiar of competitions among the people I’ve spoken with. This is probably because we may know someone with a child that competes in them since they are open to children and adults. The Special Olympics uses sport to empower individuals with intellectual disabilities. There are year-round training and events.

Since 2003, there are Special World Olympics that are held every two years. Fundamentally, the Special Olympics focuses on being a catalyst for social change by offering people with intellectual disabilities an avenue to build confidence. The Special Olympics is also an international nonprofit organization and has no ties as far as I can tell to the Olympics or Paralympics in any way.

The Paralympics

I can’t say it any better than wiki: The Paralympic Games are for athletes with physical and sensorial disabilities. This includes athletes with mobility disabilities, amputations, blindness, and cerebral palsy. The Paralympic Games are held every four years, following the Olympic Games, and are governed by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). The Paralympic Games are sometimes confused with the Special Olympics World Games, which are only for people with intellectual disabilities, but Special Olympics participants may still take part in the Paralympic games.

If you’re curious, these are the categories that we used for the track and field events (they change and evolve with each Paralympics):

  1. Classes 11, 12, and 13 cover different levels of visual impairment
  2. Class 20 covers athletes with an intellectual disability
  3. Classes 32-38 cover athletes with different levels of cerebral palsy – wheelchair (32-34) and ambulant (35-38)
  4. Classes 40-46 cover ambulant athletes with different levels of amputations and other disabilities, including les Autres (e.g. dwarfism)
  5. Classes 51-58 cover wheelchair athletes with different levels of spinal cord injuries and amputations

So if I covered the Men’s 400m – T54 race, I was covering a wheelchair sprint. The “T” indicates it’s on the track whereas an “F” indicates a field event, like discus throw.

World Games for the Deaf (also known as the Deaflympics)

The World Games for the Deaf or Deaflympics has its own competition because Deaf people do not consider themselves disabled, particularly in physical ability. Rather, the Deaf community considers themselves to be part of a cultural and linguistic minority. The competitions held in the Deaflympics aren’t adapted in any way like in the Paralympics which needs to adapt some rules to accommodate different disabilities. The only difference between regular competitions with non-deaf athletes versus Deaf athletes is how the Deaf athletes communicate.

The summer and winter Deaflympics are held every four years but not in conjunction with the Olympics and Paralympics. The Deaflympics are organized by The International Committee of Sports for the Deaf (CISS), and are sanctioned as an autonomous competition under the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that is the overarching governing body of the Olympics.


  • The Special Olympics serves 2.5 million people with intellectual disabilities in over 180 countries
  • The number of athletes participating in Summer Paralympic Games has increased from 400 athletes from 23 countries in Rome in 1960 to 4,000 athletes from 150 countries in Beijing in 2008.
  • More than 3,200 deaf athletes and officials from 67 nations participated in the 20th Summer Deaflympics in Melbourne, Australia, in January 2005. Over 600 athletes and officials participated in the 16th Winter Deaflympics in Salt Lake City, United States in February 2007.

Tags: China · Paralympics · travel

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