The 2020 Paralympic Games will take place in Tokyo, Japan from Tuesday, August 24 to Sunday, September 5. The Olympics were delayed for the first time in history due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since 1984, athletes competing in the Paralympics with cerebral palsy have been breaking through limitations by competing in a growing number of events. These elite athletes prove that dreams come true — even in the face of adversity.
History of the Paralympics
The Paralympic Games began in 1948 in Stoke Mandeville, United Kingdom. A German neurologist named Sir Ludwig Guttman had a unit of World War II veteran pilots who suffered from spinal cord injuries and were confined to wheelchairs. Dr. Guttman was looking for ways to help his paraplegic patients rehabilitate faster.
Dr. Guttman organized sporting events that occurred at the same time as the 1948 Olympic Games in London. In the earliest version of the event, 16 veterans in wheelchairs competed in archery and netball.
“Until then, the problem was hopeless, because we had not only to save the life of these paraplegic or quadriplegic men, women and children but also give them back their dignity and make them happy and respected citizens”
By 1960, the Stoke Mandeville Games became the Paralympic Games and took place in Rome, Italy. The event featured 400 athletes from 23 countries. Since then, the Paralympic Games are held shortly after each Summer and Winter Olympic Games.
Cerebral Palsy’s Integration Into The Paralympics
Athletes with cerebral palsy were first allowed to compete in the Paralympic Games in 1980 in Arnhem, Netherlands. The first cerebral palsy-only sports of football and boccia were added at the 1984 Summer Paralympics.
Although Paralympic athletes with cerebral palsy were once classified in only four classes, there are now eight classifications to include those with broader impairments.
Classifications put athletes together by their overall functioning, as determined by the Cerebral Palsy International Sports and Recreation Association (CPISRA).
The classes for the Paralympian cerebral palsy athletes include:
- CP1: Uses an electric wheelchair and is quadriplegic
- CP2: Uses an electric wheelchair and is quadriplegic, but has better upper body control as compared to CP1
- CP3: Uses a wheelchair daily and has issues with head/trunk movement, but may be able to walk with assistive devices
- CP4: Uses a wheelchair daily and may be able to walk with assistive devices, but has fewer issues with head/trunk movement
- CP5: Has more control of the upper body and can usually walk with assistive devices, but quick movements generally disrupt balance
- CP6: Able to walk without an assistive device, but the body is in constant motion
- CP7: Able to walk, but half the body is affected by cerebral palsy
- CP8: This class is the least affected physically and impairment usually occurs with at least one limb being spastic
According to CPISRA, classification is defined as “grouping athletes into sport classes according to how much their impairment affects fundamental activities in each specific sport and discipline.”
Therefore, classification is a system designed to minimize the impact of impairments and ensure each athlete’s individual ability determines their success.
Tokyo 2020 Summer Paralympics: Athletes With Cerebral Palsy
The 2020 Summer Paralympics will take place in 2021 from Tuesday, August 24 - Sunday, September 5. The Paralympic Games will include 537 events from 22 sports. There will be 167 medal events, including 93 for men, 73 for women, and one mixed.
Some Paralympians with cerebral palsy competing this year include:
Hailing from Great Britain, Breen made her international sports debut in 2012. She was born with cerebral palsy caused by meningitis. Her cerebral palsy resulted in hearing impairment, learning difficulties, issues with balance/coordination, and involuntary movements.
However, these challenges have never stopped her. According to Breen’s mother:
"She was reluctant to view herself as disabled and in any way different from her friends...having cerebral palsy was part of her, and she has seen her disability as a positive element of her personality."
– Helen Breen, Olivia’s mother
With a T38 classification, Breen participates in the 100m, 400m, 1,500m, and long jump.
Guimaraes is a track and field athlete from Livingston, NJ. Like Breen, she is classified as T38 and competes in the 100m, 400m, 1,500m, and long jump.
Guimaraes’ cerebral palsy was a result of being born nine weeks premature. However, her condition does not stop Guimaraes from pursuing her passions.
In addition to being a Paralympian with cerebral palsy, she is also a second-degree black belt and teaches taekwondo. She writes, plays soccer, swims, rock climbs, reads, and plays the violin.
Shahrad Nasajpour is a refugee from Iran who lives in the U.S. Nasajpour was born with cerebral palsy but has prevailed to become an elite discus thrower for the Refugee Paralympic Team.
Before seeking asylum in the U.S. in 2015, he threw discus in two international competitions with an Iranian team.
“Be resilient in difficult times. You will hear a lot of no’s on a regular basis, but don’t take that no as an answer."
– Shahrad Nasajpour
Nasajpour is hoping to become a U.S. citizen within a couple of years and become a member of Team USA.
Competing for Team USA, Roberts hails from Tacoma, Washington. She was born with cerebral palsy caused by a stroke at birth.
Roberts competes in track and field. Classified as T37, her events include the 100m, 200m, and long jump. She was first encouraged to compete by her high school coaches.
Roberts has impressive World Championship experience, including a gold medal in the 4x100 universal relay and silver in long jump in 2019.
Cody Jung is a cyclist from Corvallis, Oregon who will race in the 20-mile and 55-mile road race.
Jung was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he was 1 year old. His condition is considered mild, with his left arm and leg having different muscle structures than his right.
Jung was told he would never be able to participate in sports. However, nothing seems to stop him from overcoming his disability.
“I learned a long time ago I had to do things differently. The Paralympics will be the biggest event I’ve ever done.”
– Cody Jung
Jung has competed in the World Championships, the World Cup, and the USA Trials in Minneapolis, Minnesota throughout his cycling career.
Paralympics and Cerebral Palsy: Drawing Inspiration
Learning about athletes in the Paralympics with cerebral palsy can serve as powerful inspiration to those living with the condition. These triumphant individuals show that achieving dreams is possible, even with their impairments.
Cerebral palsy patients and their loved ones are welcomed to download our free Cerebral Palsy Guide to learn about overcoming challenges.