Active Voice: The Research Program of the Paralympic Games and Projects Approved for Rio de Janeiro

By Walter R. Thompson, Ph.D., FACSM

Viewpoints presented in SMB commentaries reflect opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of ACSM.

Walter R. Thompson, Ph.D., FACSM, is a Regents’ Professor and associate dean in the College of Education & Human Development at Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Thompson is ACSM’s current president-elect. Of special relevance to the topic of this commentary, he also is a member of the International Paralympic Committee’s Sports Science Committee.


An important feature of the Paralympic movement is the development and support of a research program that tries to answer the questions athletes and coaches face every day. Unlike human performance research that had its beginnings in 1896 when the first Olympic Games of the modern era began, the Paralympic movement didn’t start until Sir Ludwig Guttmann hosted the Stoke-Mandeville Games for the Paralyzed in 1948. The first organized competitions for athletes with impairments, outside of the Stoke-Mandeville Games, were not held until 1960 in Rome a few days after the Olympic Games. The first summer Paralympic Games were held 28 years later (1988) in Seoul and the first winter games were held in 1992 (Albertville). Today, the Paralympic Games and the Olympic Games are held in the same cities using the same venues and the same local organizing committees. In London 2012 and Sochi 2014, every seat in every venue was occupied by spectators. In Rio de Janeiro there will be 4,350 Paralympic athletes from 170 countries competing in 22 sports. The Rio Paralympic Games start with the opening ceremony on September 7.

As the Paralympic Games have grown in popularity, there has been heightened interest in conducting research with these remarkable athletes. In Atlanta (1996), little had been done by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) to strategically identify and coordinate a research program. In 2004, the IPC established a Sports Science Committee, which was first chaired by Dr. Gudrun Doll-Tepper (Germany); her leadership then was passed to the next chair, Prof. Dr. Yves Vanlandewijck (Belgium). The IPC Medical and Scientific Department was created within the IPC headquarters in Bonn (Germany) with Dr. Peter Van de Vliet named as the full-time permanent director. It was after Atlanta that the IPC not only saw the benefit of a coordinated research program but one that needed to strategically employ research in order to answer numerous questions that were coming from athletes and coaches.

During the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, there will be four IPC-approved research projects being conducted. The first, headed by Dr. Tracey Dickson of the University of Canberra (Australia), has a focus on redefining legacy – its aim is to enhance the management of volunteers to maximize the social and economic legacy of volunteer participation at mega sporting events. Dr. Dickson will continue her work on defining the role of the volunteer at the Rio Paralympic Games. This is a complex undertaking, as events on this scale involve coordination of thousands of volunteers. She will focus on about 2,500 of these volunteers to determine what, if any, lasting legacies there may be from these large events. The second of these projects in Rio will be led by Dr. Taian de Mello Martins Vieira from Departamento de Arte Corporal, Escola de Educação Física e Desportos, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro and his colleagues. They will study para-rowing, a relatively new Paralympic sport for which the first competition was held in Beijing (2008). Then, at the following Games in London (2012), it was further formalized with 23 countries participating in 12 medal events. In the third project, Dr. Wayne Derman (South Africa) and his colleagues from the IPC Medical Committee have created a surveillance system to determine the extent of illness and injury, how these health issues occur and how they are treated. This is a study that has both short-term and long-term implications on how athletes are medically treated before, during and after the Paralympic Games. In the fourth project, Dr. David Mann’s research team from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (the Netherlands) is studying visually impaired swimmers. Dr. Mann’s team will be filming each swimming event to gain insight into how these athletes are placed into their assigned impairment classification groups. Athlete classification (similar to gender classes and body weight classes in Olympic sport but associated with degree of impairment in Paralympic sport) is the foundation upon which fair competition is structured at the Paralympic Games (for more on athlete classification link to https://www.paralympic.org/classification/research).

Approval for conducting a research project at the Paralympic Games or at IPC-sanctioned events is a two-step process that begins a year in advance of the event. The first step is for the lead research scientist to complete an “initial research application form.” This form is simple in design, asking for the research ideas developed by the team and information on qualifications of the team members. If the research program meets standards developed by the IPC Sports Science Committee, the research team may be invited to prepare a “detailed research application.” Both of these forms can be found at https://www.paralympic.org/search-results?search_value=research+application.