Wheelchair racing, a history

The earliest recorded UK wheelchair games dates to 1923 when a sports day was held at the Royal Star and Garter Home, in Richmond, Surrey for staff and patients. Racing took place over an obstacle course with patients using long wheelbase, tricycle type, wheelchairs that bear a resemblance to the to shape of the modern three wheeled racing chairs. 

By 1944, it was recognised by Sir Ludwig Guttmann (Director of the Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Aylesbury, UK) that competitive sporting endeavours could be utilised on a larger scale to aid in the rehabilitation of the high number of disabled veterans returning from the Second World War. By using standard hospital wheelchairs, athletes were able to participate in sports such as archery, javelin and basketball. However, these wheelchairs were not best suited to wheelchair racing. 

It is one of the most prominent forms of Paralympic athletics.

Wheelchair racing, a competitive sport

By the late 1940s, with world views becoming more aware and sympathetic to the plight of injured veterans, participation in sport as a keystone for rehabilitation became internationally recognised with competitions and sporting events emerging throughout Europe and the United States. 

In 1948, the first Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralysed was held. 

The first international competition for athletes in wheelchairs was organised in 1952. A total of 130 athletes from Britain and the Netherlands with spinal cord injuries took part, competing in six sports. 

To honour the social and human value derived from the wheelchair sport movement, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recognized Guttmann's work in 1956 and awarded the Stoke Mandeville Games the Sir Thomas Fearnley Cup for meritorious achievement in service to the Olympic movement. 

In 1958, Sir Ludwig Guttmann together with Antonia Maglion, started making preparations for what would become the ninth Annual International Stoke Mandeville Games in Rome. More commonly known today as the 1960 Paralympic Games, the first Paralympic competition took place following the Olympic Games.  The event led to the formation of the International Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Sports Federation (ISMWSF) for athletes with spinal cord injuries only. 

Wheelchair racing is competed on both track and road. It is open to athletes with any qualifying type of disability such as amputees, spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy and partially sighted (when combined with another disability). Athletes are classified in accordance with the nature and severity of their disability or combinations of disabilities.

Wheelchair racing, a Paralympic sport

At the Tokyo 1964 Paralympic Games, wheelchair track racing was introduced as a Paralympic sport with athletes competing using standard wheelchairs (weighing 7 to 18 Kg) over distances no more than 200 meters. The sport grew in popularity during the Games held in Israel (1968) and Heidelberg, Germany (1972). It was during this time (1970), that Eugene Roberts completed the Boston Marathon unofficially using a standard wheelchair which led to the rise of road racing as an event.

This saw athletes begin to seek a competitive edge through technical innovation and training plans with larger wheels and more specialist equipment being used which allowed for distances up to 1500m on the track to be competed in. However, wheelchair racing was still only aimed at paraplegic or tetraplegic athletes. At the 1980 Paralympic Games (held in Arnhem, Holland), athletes with cerebral palsy competed for the first time.

Wheelchair racing is now firmly established at the Paralympic Games with competed sprint distances of 100m, 200m and 400m, middle distances of 800m and 1500m, long distances of 5000m and 10,000m and relay races of 4 x 100m and 4 x 400m, as well as the wheelchair marathon featuring as the road race.

Despite all of the technical advances and the popularity of the sport, there remain issues. There will be no stand-alone women’s T33 events at Tokyo 2020 due to ‘too few world-ranked T33 athletes.

British wheelchair racing medal winners

Medal winners can be found in the British athletics medal winners by event pages –
Wheelchair Dash and Slalom
20m, 40m, 4x40m, 60m, 3x60m
100m and 4x100m
400m and 4x400m
800m and 1500m
5000m and 10000m

Or the British athletics medal winners by athlete pages –
Surnames A-B
Surnames C-F
Surnames G
Surnames H-I
Surnames J-L
Surnames M-O
Surnames P-R
Surnames S-T
Surnames U-Z

How wheelchair racing has evolved

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, technological advancements in equipment allowed the sport to capitalise on the physical strength and endurance of athletes, ensuring that all power generated by an athlete was directly channelled through to the wheels. The 1984 Paralympic Games events held at Stoke Mandeville were the moment when specific sports wheelchairs for track racing came into being for the first time with stable bucket seating entering the racing scene.

By 1985, most racing wheelchairs no longer had any components in common with everyday wheelchairs. This allowed George Murray to be the first wheelchair racer to break the 4-minute mile. 

In 1987, three-wheel racing wheelchairs as we know them today, began to be adopted. This made steering easier and decreased overall weight. Further improvements in physical technique led to athletes adopting a kneeling instead of sitting position in 1992 which produced the ‘butterfly’ style propulsion now favoured by most competitors.  

The 2000's has seen the sport look to aero-nautical scientific advancements with racing wheelchairs now being bespoke moulded to individual competitors using state of the art carbon fibre frames. 

Technological ideas have been taken from the world of cycling and aeronautical engineering to direct as much performance power generated by an athlete into forward propulsion. This has seen some athletes able to reach a top straight-line speed of 21 miles per hour, with chairs ranging from 10 Kg to 6Kg in weight. Some well-funded athletes use a BMW racing chair that costs around £20,000, in comparison, the majority of competitors use racing wheelchairs costing around £5,000.

The adoption of a ‘kneeling’ technique has seen wheelchair designers harness computer aided design (CAD) to create a composite chair using 3D printing. This allows for an athlete’s legs to be tucked under the chair to ensure aerodynamic movement.  There are currently four specialist dealers in the UK who will have the chair built overseas.

Racing wheelchairs have two large rear pneumatic wheels and one small wheel at the front. Wheels are usually offset and are not parallel because athletes will still be pushing into a corner to generate a competitive edge. A compensator allows for a degree of steering but there is no manual steering. A pair of carbon fibre wheels cost £1,500 to £2,000.

To gain a better purchase on the push rims of the wheels, bespoke gloves are made to allow athletes to adjust to weather conditions and the distance they are competing over. Aerodynamic helmets have also been adopted to reduce drag.

Rules of wheelchair racing

To ensure all athletes compete at a fair level, competitors are divided into categories based upon their disability. The categories are split between athletes with a spinal cord injury, an amputee or cerebral palsy. Despite the classification system being in place to split up athletes, the guidelines are continually reviewed to allow more athletes an equal opportunity to place.

Athletes who are in a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy have different guidelines compared to an athlete with a spinal cord injury or who is an amputee, and range between T32 – T34 for wheelchair racing.

Athletes classed as T32 have moderate to severe co-ordination impairment affecting all four limbs and trunk, but usually with slightly more function on one side of the body or in the legs but where their trunk control is poor.

Competitors classified as T33 have moderate to severe co-ordination impairment of three to four limbs, but typically have almost full functional control in the least impaired arm.

Athletes competing in the T34 category are generally affected in all four limbs but more in the lower limbs than the upper limbs. The arms and trunk demonstrate fair to good functional strength and near to able-bodied grasp, release and relatively symmetrical wheelchair propulsion.

Athletes who are in a wheelchair due to spinal cord injury or are an amputee are in classes T51 – T54 when competing in track events. An athlete who is classed as either T51 or T52 has restricted movement in their upper limbs. An athlete who is classed as T53 has restricted movement in their abdominals. An athlete who is classed as T54 is completely functional from the waist up. 

In addition to athletes being classified based on physical attributes, there are strict rules on the dimensions and features of wheelchairs. These rules are:

  • Rule 159 Para 1 The wheelchair shall have at least two large wheels and one small wheel.
  • Rule 159 Para 2 No part of the body of the chair may extend forwards beyond the hub of the front wheel and be wider than the inside of the hubs of the two rear wheels. The maximum height from the ground of the main body of the chair shall be 50 cm.
  • Rule 159 Para 3 The maximum diameter of the large wheel including the inflated tyre shall not exceed 70 cm. The maximum diameter of the small wheel including the inflated tyre shall not exceed 50 cm.
  • Rule 159 Para 4 Only one plain, round, hand rim is allowed for each large wheel. This rule may be waived for persons requiring a single arm drive chair, if so stated on their medical and Games identity cards.
  • Rule 159 Para 5 No mechanical gears or levers shall be allowed, that may be used to propel the chair.
  • Rule 159 Para 6 Only hand operated, mechanical steering devices will be allowed.
  • Rule 159 Para 7 In all races of 800 metres or over, the athlete should be able to turn the front wheel(s) manually both to the left and the right.
  • Rule 159 Para 8 The use of mirrors is not permitted in track or road races.
  • Rule 159 Para 9 No part of the chair may protrude behind the vertical plane of the back edge of the rear tyres.
  • Rule 159 Para 10 It will be the responsibility of the competitor to ensure the wheelchair conforms to all the above rules, and no event shall be delayed whilst a competitor makes adjustments to the athletes chair.
  • Rule 159 Para 11 Chairs will be measured in the Marshalling Area, and may not leave that area before the start of the event. Chairs that have been examined may be liable to re-examination before or after the event by the official in charge of the event.
  • Rule 159 Para 12 It shall be the responsibility, in the first instance, of the official conducting the event, to rule on the safety of the chair.
  • Rule 159 Para 13 Athletes must ensure that no part of their lower limbs can fall to the ground or track during the event.

Governing bodies

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

The British Wheelchair Racing Association (BWRA) is the governing body for wheelchair racing in Great Britain. It actively promotes participation, equality and governance for disabled people in this exciting sport on road and on track.

Regional clubs

The BPA have created an online directory, Parasport, where you can search for and find out about sport and physical activity in your area.


Wheelchair racing stories

An interview with Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson

Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson represented Great Britain at her first Paralympics in 1988. Since then she has competed and won medals at 4 Paralympic Games. Read more

Video still of an interview with Caz Walton

Caz Walton remembers winning gold in the 1964 Tokyo Games

Caz Walton won Britain's first ever gold medal in a track event. Read more

Paul Cartwright in a wheelchair sprint in 1984

Paul Cartwright was in the wheelchair sprint at the 1984 Stoke Mandeville games

"I competed in my first international event in 1981; and then I really started concentrating on my training for wheelchair racing. Back then, in 1984, you had to find the money and the sponsorship yourself." Read more

Rainer Kuschall racing in 1992

Rainer Kuschall played table tennis then switched to wheelchair racing

"The move into distance racing was partly determined by my condition. I didn’t have the muscles for power or for acceleration and because of my anaerobic condition caused by low blood pressure I couldn't maintain effort for long periods." Read more

A Bromakin racing wheelchair in action on the track

An interview with Peter Caruthers

The development of sports wheelchairs for racing. Read more