Tuning in for the Paralympics? You will be after you read this

We’ll tell you about the new sports this year, who to watch and why

Gold medalist Jessica Long of the United States celebrates on the podium at the medal ceremony for the women's 200m individual medley on day 10 of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. (Buda Mendes, Getty Images)

If you got really into the Summer Olympics this year, and you’re missing the excitement or the nightly events, some good news: There’s a similar competition set to get underway -- starting today, actually.

Enter: The Paralympic Games, which are for athletes with disabilities.

The Paralympics (just pronounced “pear-Olympics,” not “Para Olympics,” which you do hear sometimes), is the largest international event of its kind. It’s held shortly after each Olympic Games, in the same host city.

So, the Opening Ceremony is set for Tuesday, and the events run through Sept. 5. Just like the Tokyo Olympics, there won’t be any spectators, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but there should still be plenty of buzz.

The Tokyo Games will feature more than 4,000 athletes across 22 sports. Badminton and taekwondo also will be making their Paralympic debut.

If you really want to lean in, Rolling Stone magazine suggests checking out “Rising Phoenix” on Netflix, which features several Para athletes who will compete in Tokyo, including fencer Bebe Vio of Italy, sprinter Jonnie Peacock of Great Britain, and archer Matt Stutzman of Team USA. (Which is now on my “must-watch” list for the weekend!)

Athletes to watch

If you tuned in for the 2020ne Olympics at all, you probably saw the Jessica Long commercial, which is a real tear-jerker, to say the least.

She’s the double amputee who was born in Siberia and adopted as a baby, who went on to become a world-class swimmer. (For real, she has 13 gold medals). Watch the spot for yourself:

Long will be back in the pool, and you might also want to check out TikTok favorite Hunter Woodhall, who’s a sprinter in the track and field competitions.


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Tatyana McFadden is another Paralympic star, having won 17 medals over the course of her career. Tokyo marks her sixth Paralympic Games, as she competes in the wheelchair races.

These aren’t events to tune in for just to warm your heart -- sure, there might be a feel-good aspect of the Paralympics, but it should be noted: These are highly competitive, record-breaking competitions, featuring athletes who train just as hard as the Olympians. Imagine running on prosthetic legs or swimming as fast as Long, as a double amputee. The training that goes into even qualifying for the Paralympics is truly elite.

For some more athletes to watch, check out this list.

Sports you’ve never heard of

As you can imagine, there are some differences when it comes to Olympic and Paralympic sports.

Boccia, for example, is kind of like bowling and curling, with athletes trying to get a bocce ball as close to a target as possible.

Goalball is for athletes with visual impairment, and they all wear dark goggles to make sure it’s fair (considering some blind athletes are classified as B1, totally blind, while others, like a B2 or B3, might have some peripheral vision or they’re able to see shapes or shadows).

Teams are made up of six players, with three members playing at any one time. The object of the game is to throw or roll a ball past the opponents and into their net to score points. Players stay on their hands and knees to defend their net and score against their opponents.

The ball has bells inside it so the athletes can hear it coming. Here’s a look:

Football 5-A-Side is another sport adapted for the visually impaired.

Watching fencing, basketball and rugby all played from wheelchairs can be fun, too. You’re adding wheels to already intense sports, so it’s just another layer.

Learn more about all the Paralympic sports here.


In the Olympics, sports are mostly grouped by sex or weight class.

In the Paralympics, athletes compete against people who have about the same functional ability as they do. It’s all about levels of impairment, so that the events are fair.

Classifications can refer to physical, vision and intellectual impairments.

It’s a lot to learn about and get into, but if you’re planning on watching or you want to learn more, click or tap here for a breakdown.


Although we touched on this earlier, it’s worth reiterating: These sports are hard, and no one is given a pass to the Paralympics just because of a disability.

“Some misconceptions are, that with the Paralympics, we just sign up and go to the Games,” American triathlete Melissa Stockwell, an Iraq war veteran, told Reuters. “But we train just as hard as able-bodied athletes. We sacrifice just as much. ... The toll on our body is just as much or more when someone is dealing with a prosthetic limb or a spinal cord injury or are in a wheelchair. We work just as hard as Olympic athletes.”

For her part, Stockwell, who won a bronze medal in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, will be in Tokyo as well, competing in her third Paralympic Games.


As the International Paralympic Committee put it, on the group’s website, “Sport for athletes with an impairment has existed for more than 100 years, and the first sport clubs for the deaf were already in existence in 1888 in Berlin. (But) it was not until after World War II, however, that it was widely introduced. The purpose of it at that time was to assist the large number of war veterans and civilians who had been injured during wartime.”

The IPC, by the way, is the governing body for the Paralympics, kind of like how the International Olympic Committee oversees the Olympics.

The Paralympic Games first took place in Rome in 1960. There were 400 athletes from 23 countries.

Here's the Italian team at the Olympic Village before the start of the first International Paralympic Games, in Rome on Sept. 16, 1960. The games were known at the time as the 9th Annual International Stoke Mandeville Games. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

An agreement between the IPC and the IOC made it so that the Games would take place in the same cities and venues as the Olympics. That started after the Seoul, Korea Summer Games and the Albertville, France Winter Games, according to the IPC website.

This year will be historical as well, because for the first time, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee will give Paralympians the same amount of money for winning medals as Olympians (which is $37,500 for gold). Read more about that here.

How to watch

The Paralympics will be broadcast on NBC, NBCSN and The Olympic Channel, as well as streamed live and on-demand on NBCOlympics.com, the NBC Sports app and on Peacock.

For the first time, there will even be primetime coverage on NBC.