This week was to have been the start of the sixteenth Paralympic Games in Tokyo, but like everything else this year has been re-arranged due to the Covid 19. In recent years, quite rightly so, media interest has increased in the Paralympics. It is rather the same syndrome as football, media were only interested in the ‘men’s’ game and only recently have the women been given access to decent international stadiums and their football game being given serious media coverage it deserves. The extra media coverage that the Para Games now gets is entirely due to the huge growth of Para Sport in the last fifty years.
Since the 1950’s when being disabled was generally considered a taboo subject and any such disabilities should be hidden away – look at Prince John, youngest son of King George V who was hidden away as he suffered from epilepsy – media coverage by TV and written publications have become much more prevalent as society recognises the abilities of those competing in the Para sports arena.
In 1948, when many red blooded men had returned with serious disabilities due to the turmoil’s of war, a German refugee living in England, Dr Ludwick Guttmann, organised the first sporting games in London for a small gathering of men – sound of mind and full of competitiveness, but some with horrendous injuries. It was his intention to run the games alongside the Olympics and to create an elite sports competition for those with disabilities. In 1952, Dutch and other nations recognised the work that Dr Guttmann had done and sent a few competitors – thus the arena for para sports was created. In 1960, the Olympic equivalent was held in Rome just after the completion of the Olympics themselves with 400 athletes from 23 countries turning up. Ever since 1960, equivalent games for paras have been held alongside or just after the Olympics. The popularity of the games has grown at a phenomenal pace since and in 1976, The International Paralympic Committee was incorporated to oversee the running of para sport. Every 4 years the IPC have added to the number of sports included and in 2001, the Olympic committee itself and the IPC joined forces to allow for the continued growth of the Paralympics. In fifty years, the Paralympics expanded from its small beginnings to having over 4340 athletes from 159 countries competing in the 2016 Rio Games.
It was not until 1996 Atlanta Olympics, that equestrianism was included in the Paralympic programme. It was decided that dressage would be the Paralympic competition and that there would be different classes for the athletes with several competitions dependant on the disability of the rider, thus giving each rider the ability to win medals irrespective of their disadvantage. Competitors ride a dressage test and also a freestyle to music test and as with the Olympics, there is also a Team competition. In Rio, there were ten individual Gold medals available from five bands of competition together with the eleventh Gold medal for the team event. In Tokyo 2020(1), the format for the equestrian Paralympics is expected to be the same as Rio.
Right from the beginning, Great Britain has made the Paralympics their own. In the UK, since 1969, there has been a vibrant and valued charitable organisation, ‘The Riding for the Disabled Association’ headed by former Olympian Princess Anne. Perhaps this is why the British have been so dominant over the years at the Para Games. However, in recent years, other countries have put some serious and successful challenges to the British.
Sir Lee Pearson is currently the most successful dressage Paralympian winning eleven Gold Medals over five consecutive Paralympic Games. He has ridden two horses over his five appearances, first Circle Boy, a distinctive roan gelding and more recently another gelding – Gentleman. Other successful riders over the years have been Anne Dunham, Debbie Criddle, Sophie Christiansen, Sophie Wells, Nicole Tustain and Natasha Baker. Great Britain have always won the Paralympic Gold Medal for the Team Event and the above riders have also won several individual Gold Medals to boot!
However, Great Britain have not always had it their own way, particularly in Rio, where they did win the Team Gold, but had to share the individual Gold Medals with riders from Holland, (Sanne Voets) Austria, (Pepo Puch) Belgium, (Michele George) and Norway (Ann Cathrin Lubbe) all of whom are beginning to hog the limelight.
Below is a video of a complete test performed by Natasha Baker (GB) who was the most successful equine Paralympian in Rio winning three Gold Medals, two individual and one team riding Cabral, a lovely horse who is sadly no longer with us. Natasha has no or very limited use of her legs, so her riding is remarkable.
The editor Bernard Simpson has been involved with horses and the industry for over 40 years. Together with his wife, he bred many flat racehorses including some which were Royal Ascot winners. He is also experienced in equine media using video, photography and journalism. Bernard currently lives in Wiltshire. He and guest authors now present this blog and hope you like our articles.
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