Sep 8, 2020 - Sports

Netflix documentary "Rising Phoenix" explores heroes of the Paralympics

paralympic runners
Great Britain's Jonnie Peacock celebrates winning gold in the men's 100m at the 2012 Paralympics in London. Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images

The 16th Summer Paralympics would have ended this weekend in Tokyo, but the pandemic had other ideas.

Why it matters: The Paralympics is the one of the biggest sporting events on Earth, and its recent surge in popularity has helped change how the world views disabilities — and human potential.

  • The event's success has given the disabled community a global platform to show that there's nothing "less than" about them, and that platform is only getting bigger as 2021 approaches.

The backdrop: The Paralympics was the brainchild of Ludwig Guttmann, a Jewish neurologist in 1930s Germany who was forced out of his job when Adolf Hitler came to power.

  • His family escaped to England in 1939, where he took up a post at the Stoke Mandeville spinal injury center for soldiers and realized that the power of sport could be used to both mentally and physically rehabilitate his patients.
  • In 1948, with London hosting the Olympics, he organized the first annual Stoke Mandeville Games.
  • By 1960, the event had grown to include 400 athletes and was officially recognized as the 1st Paralympic Summer Games in Rome. Since then, it has run parallel to the Olympics.

The big picture: By 2008 in Beijing, the Paralympics had become a huge success, and in 2012, the event grew even bigger with 3.8 billion viewers worldwide.

  • Disaster nearly struck in 2016 when, just five weeks shy of the Rio Games, the IPC learned that the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee had spent all the money earmarked for the Paralympics on the Olympics.
  • Fortunately, government funds were secured at the last minute, and the event was a rousing success. A record 4.1 billion viewers tuned in, and in-person attendance actually outdrew the Olympics.

Meet the athletes: Netflix's new documentary, "Rising Phoenix," dives into the history of the Paralympics, while highlighting athletes' journeys from tragedy to triumph. A few heroes from the film:

  • Matt Stutzman: An American archer born without arms whose preternatural ability to use his feet made him a silver medalist in 2012.
  • Tatyana McFadden: A Russian-American track star born with spina bifida that left her paralyzed from the waist down. She's among the most decorated Paralympians of all time, with 17 medals across various events.
  • Jean-Baptiste Alaize: A French long jumper who was born in Burundi during that country's civil war and lost his leg at 3 after a machete attack. He's a four-time, U-23 world champion, still looking for his first Paralympic medal.

The last word:

"The Olympics are where heroes are created; the Paralympics are where heroes come."
— Ian Bonhôte, director of "Rising Phoenix"

🎥 Watch:

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to show that it was the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee (not the International Olympic Committee) that spent funds earmarked for the Paralympics on the Olympics instead.

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