Author: Sam Brady, 25th November 2021

For the next 6 months, my blogs will start to look a little different! As part of my PhD, I have started a placement with the National Paralympic Heritage Trust, and as part of this I am assisting in archiving the WheelPower collection. As I am looking at all these amazing papers, objects and materials, I thought it would be best to share my discoveries for my monthly blogs. Some objects might relate to my studies, some not, but the overall idea is to highlight some of the amazing items we can use when researching the history of the Paralympics and disabled sport.

To begin my time in the archives, I helped to audit some of the existing boxes of materials. This was great for me, as nosing around the archive was the one of the main things I’d been most excited to do during the pandemic lockdowns. In one of these boxes, I came across the following item, and I quickly realised how important items like this are for my research and the extra detail they can bring into my understanding of this history.


Two images show the front of a green folder and the first page of the documents inside. Text on both images reads: ‘Olympics for the Disabled, Arnhem, Holland, 21 June – 25 July, Rulebook. 'The Games’ logo is also displayed on both images. The colour coding of different events can also be seen here on the inside of the folder. ©WheelPower Stoke Mandeville Stadium Archive.  

The item in question is a small, green folder for the 1980 Summer Paralympic Games, held in Arnhem, Holland, between the 21st June and 5th July, known as the ‘Olympics for the Disabled’ (more on this name later). The object is labelled as a Rulebook for the Games, but it contains a variety of documents, from rules for each sport, to classification guidelines, schedules and blank results pages. After the contents page and a ‘tentative schedule of events’ at the beginning of the folder, the rulebook details the general regulations for the event, which includes details of the organisations which governed the Games and the system for formal protest.

Provisional timetable for the Games. ©WheelPower Stoke Mandeville Stadium Archive.  

Page from General Regulations section. © WheelPower Stoke Mandeville Stadium Archive.  

From this point, the rulebook is split into different sections for each impairment category, as the rules and medical classification alter based on these differing types of disability. The rulebook classifies these as Amputees; Blind; Cerebral Palsy; and Paraplegic. Each of these sections begins with general regulations for athletes categorised within these impairment groups, before providing further details of each individual event. Amusingly, these four main categories are colour coded: red for Amputees, orange for Blind, yellow for Cerebral Palsy and light Green for Paraplegic. Once in these sub-sections, details for each event are listed – the rules and regulations for each sport, equipment details, scoring systems, and a blank page of results the owner can fill in. For example, the pages concerning blind shot put can be found below:


Two pages detailing the Blind shot put field event. First page details equipment specifications and field set up, and the second page features blank boxes to record results. © WheelPower Stoke Mandeville Stadium Archive.  

Towards the end of the folder, there are details of the scoring system for the pentathlon and standards for each impairment category – although these do not follow the lovely colour coding system, frustratingly! The rulebook is a great insight into the number of sports present at the 1980 Summer Games and the organisation of the Paralympics more broadly in this time. Given the presence of general rules, explanations of each sport, tentative schedules, and the blank results pages, this object was presumably used by referees or volunteers involved with the running of the Games. The small size of the folder would allow for easy transport during the day, and the colour-coding would help users quickly navigate to each category of sport.

As you might have guessed, however, my main interest in this item is seen in the details relating to wheelchair sports. In the section concerning Paraplegic sport, for example, there is a double-sided page concerning the technical standards that the wheelchairs had to meet. One section, for instance, reads: “The measurement from the bottom of the large wheels to the bottom of the castor (wheel base) shall not exceed 55 cm with the castors in forward pushing position”, demonstrating the strict parameters placed on wheelchair technology. Further, the details on these pages highlight some regulations that would later be firmly rejected by athletes in the following decade. In particular, rules restricting the number of wheels a chair could have to four – specifically two large and two small – and the banning of steering devices were promptly rejected by wheelchair racers as they sought to use three-wheeled designs with steering compensators to assist turning. Seeing technical rules like this help to contextualise the function and form of officially regulated chairs at this point in Paralympic history, and it also provides comparable details between events that really bolster my research. Of course, just because these are the official rules at the Paralympic level does not mean that athletes adhered to them beyond these events, and these guidelines may also indicate areas in which athletes resisted what they saw as restrictive regulations.


Two pages detailing wheelchair specifications in the Paraplegic section of the folder. ©WheelPower Stoke Mandeville Stadium Archive

More important for wider use, however, is how this rulebook highlights the state of the Paralympics as an institution at this time. For instance, the name of the Games – Olympics for the Disabled – was a contentious one, due the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) wish for Olympic terminology to not be used. But, given that the formal agreement was never finalised, the organisers went ahead with this name. Part of this issue was due to the IOC only wanting to recognise one organisation for the entirety of the disability sport movement. At this time, multiple organisations existed to govern sport for each impairment category, so the IOC only officially recognising one of these organisations would not necessarily be appropriate. In fact, this was the first Games to feature sports from four impairment groups – Amputee, Blind, Cerebral Palsy and Paraplegic – at the same venue, and this explains the rulebook’s reference to various disability sport organisations; this was the first time they were all at the same table.

The significance of this cannot be understated, as it helped to develop the Paralympics as we know it today. As stated on the NPHT’s webpage about the Arnhem 1980 Games:

These Games led to the creation of the International Co-ordinating Committee Sports for the Disabled in the World (ICC) in 1982, in which each federation (ISMGF, ISOD, Cerebral Palsy International Sports and Recreation Association (CPISRA) and International Blind Sports Federation (IBSA)) was represented. 

Whilst there is certainly more to unpack about the significance of the 1980 Games and the different issues that led up to it, this rulebook provides a brief insight into these historic narratives. This object is the exact type of material that I was hoping to find now that I am accessing the archives. The detail this object provides about wheelchair specifications is invaluable, and the extra insight into the development of the Games themselves highlights the importance of diving deep into the archive.

All images taken by Sam Brady ©WheelPower Stoke Mandeville Stadium Archive