The 2012 Summer Paralympics opened in London Wednesday. Since their inception as a form of rehabilitation for wounded World War II veterans, the Paralympics have grown and expanded. Though the games traditionally takes place in the same location as the Olympic Games, the Paralympics have developed to the point where they are much more than just an afterthought to the main event.

Indeed, this summer’s Paralympics are the largest and most commercially successful ever.

Well over 2.3 million tickets have been sold. Record numbers will come to be awed by the athletic abilities and the human spirit of men and women slowed down but not stopped by challenges ranging from amputated limbs and cerebral palsy to intellectual disabilities and visual impairment.

Obviously, the Paralympics will not garner the sort of commercial revenues generated by the 2012 Olympics – organizers expect to raise £25 million compared to sales of over £500m. from the Olympics – but all entry tickets were paid for, a first for the Paralympics. In fact, the tickets are almost sold out, there are billboards all over Britain featuring Paralympians and there was an expectant buzz in the air in the days leading up to Wednesday’s kickoff. The events are being broadcast on Britain’s Channel 4 in 150-plus hours of airtime.

Part of the explanation for the tremendous popularity of this year’s Paralympics in London might have to do with its British roots. The birthplace of Paralympic sport is Stoke Mandeville Hospital, located in Buckinghamshire, where back in 1948 neurologist Ludwig Guttmann used sport therapy as a means of rehabilitation. (Archery was the first sport incorporated into Guttmann’s treatment regimen.) The hospital exists to this day and has an internationally renowned spinal injury unit. Stoke Mandeville served as the starting point for the delivery of the Paralympic flame to Stratford on Wednesday.

Another factor is the tremendous of the British team over the past few decades. Britain finished in the top two at the last three Paralympic games.

But another reason for the tremendous growth in the popularity of the games is connected with people’s changing perceptions of disability sports, not just in Britain but worldwide. Western countries – including Israel, which was host to the 1968 Paralympics – were the first to develop the games. There appears to be a correlation between the degree of freedom – and prosperity – a country enjoys and the extent to which Paralympic sport is developed. Tellingly, in 1980 the Soviet Union refused to host the Summer Paralympics. As a result, 2,500 disabled athletes from 42 countries were forced to go to the Netherlands to compete.

This year an estimated 4,200 athletes (250 more than at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics) from 165 countries (19 more than Beijing) will compete. Fifteen countries will be making their debut, countries such as Liberia, Mozambique and North Korea.

We hope the success of the London Paralympics will have a ripple effect, leading to the development of disability sports for school-aged boys and girls. Young, aspiring Paralympians should be given the tools they need to realize their potential at the highest level of performance.

The increasing success and prominence of Paralympic sport is not just important for those who are physically or mentally disabled. Paralympic sport can be inspirational for those who have no impairments. Arguably, nowhere is the wonder of excellence and the brilliance of achievement so pronounced as in individuals who have been forced, due to the circumstances of their lives, to overcome extraordinary challenges to reach new pinnacles.

Paralympics may have started as a form of rehabilitation for the disabled, but it has grown to become much more. The outstanding achievements of increasing numbers of Paralympians from across the globe are an inspiration for all humanity – especially for those of us not suffering from disabilities – who are too quick to give up when life’s challenges seemingly get too tough to bear.

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