Athletics, a competitive sport

In 1944, Sir Ludwig Guttmann created the first para athletics competition in his role as Director of the Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville hospital. Athletes were encouraged to participate in sports such as archery and basketball whilst sat in their wheelchairs as part of their rehabilitation from spinal injuries they gained in the Second World War. By 1948 international athletes were encouraged to join and the first ‘Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralysed’ were held. 

Wheel chair racing as a competition was first seen amongst para athletes during the Stoke Mandeville Games in 1952 in the UK although this event wasn’t introduced in the Paralympics until 1964 in Tokyo.

Athletics, a Paralympic event

Athletic events have featured at the Paralympics since the first Paralympic Games in Rome in 1960 when 31 athletes from 10 countries competed in 25 events: club throw, javelin, shot put and precision javelin for both men and women, across three different classifications, as well as the pentathlon open. This has increased over time to 160 different events (over 18 different types) in which men and women can compete at different classifications. 

From 1992 women were no longer able to compete in the club throw, although this was reinstated in 2012. 

From London 2012 if a visually impaired runner wins a medal, so does his or her sighted guide. 

Athletics is the largest and most popular sport at the Paralympics, often selling out spectator tickets.

Athletics at the Paralympic Summer Games

  • 1960 Rome, Italy – 35 events, 10 countries and 31 athletes (21 men and 10 women) participated.
  • 1964 Tokyo, Japan - 42 events, 16 countries and 82 athletes (42 men and 40 women) participated.
  • 1968 Tel Aviv, Israel - 70 events, 26 countries and 423 athletes (296 men and 127 women) participated.
  • 1972 Heidelberg, Germany - 73 events, 39 countries and 549 athletes (379 men and 170 women) participated.
  • 1976 Toronto, Canada - 208 events, 39 countries and 774 athletes (618 men and 156 women) participated.
  • 1980 Arnhem, Netherlands - 275 events, 40 countries and 936 athletes (687 men and 249 women) participated.
  • 1984 New York, USA & Stoke Mandeville, UK – 449 events, 51 countries and 1198 athletes (885 men and 313 women) participated.
  • 1988 Seoul, South Korea – 345 events, 57 countries and 1141 athletes (881 men and 260 women) participated.
  • 1992 Barcelona, Spain – 214 events, 74 countries and 928 athletes (723 men and 205 women) participated.
  • 1996 Atlanta, USA – 210 events, 84 countries and 908 athletes (711 men and 197 women) participated.
  • 2000 Sydney, Australia – 234 events, 104 countries and 1044 athletes (800 men and 244 women) participated.
  • 2004 Athens, Greece – 194 events, 116 countries and 1064 athletes (767 men and 297 women) participated.
  • 2008 Beijing, China – 160 events, 111 countries and 1028 athletes (696 men and 332 women) participated.
  • 2012 London, UK – 170 events, 141 countries and 1133 athletes (759 men and 374 women) participated.

British athletics medal winners by event

Field Events

Track Events

Other Events

British athletics medal winners by athlete

Rules of athletics

Athletics competitors are classified by disability (as decided by the International Paralympics Committee) so that athletes compete with others who have a similar disability or impairment. Athletes are also then split into female and male.

The current classifications are as follows:
F = Field athlete
T = Track athlete

11-13 = Visual Impairment
20 = Intellectual Disability
31-38 = Cerebral Palsy
41-46 = Amputation + Dwarfism
51 – 58 = Wheelchair

For example, a T20 athlete is a track athlete with an intellectual disability. 

Athletics as a sport is split into track, field, road and combined events (such as the pentathlon) but not every event is open to every classification. The majority of the rules for the Paralympics athletics are the same as those for non-disabled competitors with modifications to address specific needs such as, prosthetic limbs or racing wheelchairs, as well as for runners with more severe visual impairments who compete with guide runners. 

From 1st January 2014 changes were enforced for athletes with complications in their lower legs who competed in throwing events whilst in their wheelchair. New rules came in to state that the wheelchair athlete must sit in a way which ensures that both lower members remain in contact with the chair from the back of the knee up to their gluteus maximus. The athletes were no longer able to use their feet to push themselves up out of their chairs in order to reach a further distance. This change meant that athletes had to adopt new techniques which, due to the short time these rules have been in place, have so far led to a reduced distance being reached.


Track events are split into sprint, middle distance, long distance and relay and different considerations are applied according to the disabilities of the athlete concerned. 

Partially sighted athletes can receive help from a guide runner who can give the athlete verbal instructions of what is coming up ahead.
The guide should be of a similar height to the athlete so that they are able to synchronise and match stride patterns as well as the movement of their arms.
It is important that the guide must have the capacity to run faster than the athlete which is why male guides are sometimes seen helping female visually impaired athletes.
Athletes and their guides are tethered together with non-stretchy material either by the wrist or by holding the material between their fingers.
Guides must stay within 50cm of their athletes at all times except during the final 10cm of the race and they must not cross the finish line before their athlete.
In distances up to 400m both the guide and athlete must use the starting blocks. In shorter distances only one guide may be used but in races 800m or longer two guides may be used and in marathons up to four are permitted. 

If the athlete requires mobility assistance, they can use a specially designed racing wheelchair. Racing wheelchairs (often costing more than $5,000 to purchase) have two large wheels in the back and one smaller wheel in the front and must be hand driven with no mechanical gears or levels being used to propel the chair. Male wheelchair racers typically reach 22-24mph and women reach 20-22mph. 

The distances offered for Paralympic athletes are as follow:

  • Sprints - 100m, 200m, 400m
  • Middle distance - 800m and 1,500m
  • Long distance - 5,000m and 10,000m
  • Relay - 4x100m and 4x400m

In relay events, each competitor completes an equal share of the total distance. Upon finishing their distance, they pass a baton onto the next athlete in their team (expect in wheel chair events when it is enough to touch the next team mate’s body instead).


As with track events guides are able to help visually impaired athletes during their field events. The guide is important here in helping to line the athlete up so that they don’t jump out of lane or throw the item out of the valid area.

The different types of jumps that are offered are the same as for non-disabled athletes and are as follows:

  • High Jump
  • Long jump
  • Triple jump 

For the long jump and triple jump the landing area must be made out of cinders or grass so that an imprint is made when the athlete lands which can be used to measure the distance travelled in the jump. The athlete that travels the furthest distance is declared the winner.  

Club throw 

Athletes compete in the club throw by either sitting in their wheelchair or on a platform. The club is held at neck or head in one hand and thrown towards the landing section with the furthest throw being declared the winner. The club may be thrown either from facing the landing section or from facing backward and throwing overhead. The end of the club closest to the throwing line is used to measure the distance of the throw. 

The club is made out of wood (apart from the metal end) and must be between 35–39cm long and weigh between 402-422g. 

The club throw is the most dangerous event for officials and so it is often loudly announced when the club will be passed to the athlete as well as when it is safe for the athlete to make their throw.


The discus is a round smooth item which can be either solid or hollow but is be made out of wood and can weigh up to 2kg. The discus is raised in the middle (approximately 45mm in height) but must evenly taper downwards in a straight-line from the middle so that the edges are between 12-13mm wide. 

The discus must be thrown from within a U shaped netted enclose or cage which is designed to ensure the safety of spectators and other athletes. The cage needs to be designed to ensure the discus will not rebound or ricochet back towards the athlete if the throw is released at the wrong time. 

If a valid throw is made a white flag will be shown, however a red flag will be shown if it is deemed a failure.

Once the discus has been thrown, a judge places a marker at the point from which the trial is to be measured. If the discus has landed outside of a valid area the closest judge will indicate this by holding their arm outstretched.


The javelin is a long thin implement that is made up of a solid or hollow shaft, a sharp pointed metal head and a cord grip of uniform thickness. The javelin is held by the grip with one hand and thrown over the shoulder or upper part of the throwing arm into the landing area.  A throw is only valid if the metal head hits the ground first. All valid throws are measured and the athlete who managed to throw the javelin the furthest is declared the winner.

Shot put 

The shot is held on the shoulder with one hand before it is ‘put’ but not thrown.

The shot must be made out of a hard metal such as iron or brass and must be spherical with a smooth finish. The shot can weigh between 2 and 7.6kg.

As with the above events the athlete who managed to throw the shot put the furthest is declared the winner.

Road Racing  

The marathon takes place on the roads of the host city. Competitors are split into male and female, as well as by classification and run at separate times. All competitors wait just before start line (making sure that no athlete has his foot or front wheel touching the line) for the gun, cannon or air horn to sound to announce the start of the race. The competitors then run, or ‘traverse’ the 26.2mile distance and the first person to cross the finish line is declared the winner.


The sports athletes compete in during the pentathlon differ according to their disability:

  • Visual impairment - long jump, javelin, 100m, discus, 1500m
  • Amputee - long jump, shot put, 100m, discus, 400m
  • Spinal disability - shot put, javelin, 200m, discus, 1500m

The same rules apply as for these as stand-alone events.

Each competitor gains points for each individual element and the athlete with the highest score after all five events wins the gold medal.

Governing bodies

Internationally, para athletics is governed by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and co-ordinated by the World Para Athletics Sports Technical Committee. 

UK Athletics is the Member Federation of the IAAF responsible for athletics in the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland. 

The British Wheelchair Racing Association (BWRA) is the governing body for wheelchair racing in Great Britain.

Regional clubs 

UK Wide
The British Paralympic Association has created an online directory, Parasport, where you can search for and find out about sport and physical activity in your area. 
British Athletics is the consumer brand of the governing body 'UK Athletics' their website has links to the home countries athletics organisations here. 

England & Scotland
A list clubs including the impairments they cater for can be found at the following link:

Disability Sport Wales has a club finder here.

Northern Ireland
Athletics NI run Para Athlete training sessions throughout the year, information and contact details can be found here.


Athletics stories and videos

Video still of an interview with James Brown Visually-impaired runner James Brown

James Brown won gold as a visually-impaired runner at New York in 1984. He also coached and acted as a guide runner for Darren Cook, a completely blind middle-distance runner, when he took three gold medals at the World Youth Games for the Disabled at St Etienne in the 1980s. Read more

Archive Film Footage of the 1984 Stoke Mandeville Games

Including Dorothy Ripley taking gold and the world record in the women's shot put.

video still of Danny Crates

Transitioning from rugby to amputee running

Danny Crates talks about transitioning from able bodied rugby to amputee running. Read more

Middle distance amputee running

Danny Crates discusses middle distance running as an amputee. Read more

Commentating at London 2012

Danny Crates talks about commentating at the London 2012 Games. Read more

Ernie Guild takes up shot put

"As a disabled person, I was probably luckier than a lot of others… because I have always done a lot of medicine ball work and things like that so I have upper body strength." Read more

Head and shoulders photo of Isabel Newstead with her gold medal Isabel Newstead - a biography

Born Isabel Barr in Glasgow, Isabel swam competitively as a young girl.  In her late teens her spinal cord was damaged by a virus which left her paralysed from the chest down. Read more

John Harris preparing to throw the discus in 1984 John Harris describes his long journey into athletics

"As a teenager I had always been into sport: I used to do gymnastics, rugby and boxing – a bit of everything. So my accident was completely devastating for me. They fixed up my body, but they couldn’t fix my head." Read more

Tony Griffin with his winning medals at the 1984 New York Games Paralympics legacy

Tony Griffin talks about what the Paralympics means to him. Read more

Shot put and discus throwing

A video of discus and shot put being played in Stoke Mandeville and at the 1964 Tokyo Games.