Parapan American Games in Toronto Going on Now

By Ben Hamill - August 09 2015

The Parapan American Games (Parapan Am) began in Toronto on August 7 and will run through August 15. The Parapan Am Games are a qualifying event for the Paralympics. The first Parapan Am games were held only in 1999 in Mexico City.

The games are held every four years in a different Western Hemisphere location. At first, the Pan Am and Parapan Am games were held in different locations. In 2007 Rio de Janeiro hosted both the Pan Am and the Parapan Am games for the first time. The number of participating athletes, participating countries, and sports has also grown from event to event. The first games had just 1000 athletes from 18 participating countries and four sports.

This year, the Parapan Am games have 1600 athletes from 26 countries competing in 15 sports. There will be about 160 Canadian athletes. I imagined that most would be swimmers and wheelchair basketball players and I was right but I was surprised at how many athletes are taking part in the sitting volleyball competition! Canada is also well-represented in boccia and cycling.

Logistical Challenge

Preparing for a large athletic event, with athletes and support people from many countries, speaking several languages, following different cultural norms, and eating different food, to doing the same for physically-challenged athletes is a major undertaking. This year's Parapan Am games are not just a preliminary qualifying event for the Paralympics. The directors have gone out of their way to demonstrate their commitment to accessibility for the physically challenged. Hearing assistance, wheelchair rental, and battery-charging stations will be among the many amenities serving the challenged community, their families, friends, and caregivers. These games also serve as a showcase for the Paralympics. Some might ask why the Paralympics, as popular and trans-political an event as there is in the world, needs the kind of special exposure the Parapan Am games give it. We should all recall that as progressive a world leader as President Barack Obama made an uncalled for crack on national television at the expense of para-athletes.

Bigger and Longer

As the Parapan Am games get bigger with more athletes and more sports, there was a need for an extra day to manage the event most smoothly so one day has been added this year. Incredibly, before the day was added, the closing ceremony was in direct conflict with gold medal events including the gold medal game in wheelchair basketball! Thankfully, the ludicrousness of this was seen in time to add the extra day. Now all the para-athletes will be able to take part in the closing ceremony!

From Rehabilitation, to Recreation to Competition

Recreational sport for "crippled" athletes have been going on for at least 100 years but medical personnel first saw the great benefit of sports in rehabilitating severely injured soldiers only after World War II. Post-war athletic activity for soldiers with spinal injuries was called "rehabilitative sport". Only later did the term "recreational sport" return. Finally, when people noticed that severe injuries did not curb the athletes' competitive fire, the activity began to be called competitive sport.

At the London Olympics in 1948, 16 athletes, men and women, participated in an archery competition for wheelchair bound athletes. The games were called the Stoke Mandeville Games after the hospital where Dr. Ludwig Guttmann had founded a centre for the treatment of spinal injuries at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1944. Injured soldiers from Holland joined the games three years later and four years later non-military athletes from Holland joined.

The first Paralympics were held in summer, 1960 in Rome. They have been held every four summers since. The first Winter Paralympics were held in Norway in 1976 and have also been held every four years since.

Unusual Sports

One sport at this year's event that I had never heard of is "goalball". Athletes with visually impairments play this game. The object is to roll the ball into the opponent's goal. All players wear eyeshades so the less impaired don't have any advantage over the fully impaired. Since the players cannot see the ball, they have to hear it; the ball has bells inside! It may be the only sport where fans are asked to be quiet during play because the players have to "hear what they're doing"! Spectators are encouraged to cheer when a players scores a goal!

Wheelchair Rugby piqued my interest as well. Players frequently crash their wheelchairs as one athlete tries to prevent another from advancing the ball. In Para sport, wheelchair rugby is a co-ed sport!

Finally, I looked up para judo. This sport is for the visually impaired. Matches run five minutes for men and four minutes for women.

A Word to the Wise

As with all major sporting events these days, you should get to the stadium early, be prepared to empty your pockets and have all your bags inspected. You will have to pass through the metal detector. Some items trigger the metal detector such as belts and steel tipped shoes. If you are asked to remove your belt or your shoes, do so. It may be an athletic event unlike any you've attended before but security requirements are as strict as anywhere.

All the information you need to make your visit to the Parapan Am Games in Toronto a memorable event is available at

In all, this is one of the most warm-hearted sporting events you'll see this side of the Stanley Cup Finals handshake line.