The first organized sports competition for persons competing in wheelchairs was a part of the Stoke-Mandeville Games, the forerunner to the modern Paralympics movement, held in England in 1948 for persons with physical disabilities. The wheelchair technology then available to the competing athletes was crude; the wheelchairs were not modified from their intended purpose of basic hospital transport for persons who lacked motor control of their legs.
Modern wheelchair design and the ever-increasing range of sports available to disabled persons create a symbiotic relationship. As sports in which a wheelchair can be adapted for athletic use have been proposed and developed, technology and design have kept abreast of athletic interests.
The modern international Paralympics movement, supported by the efforts of over 150 national Paralympics organizations, has created a structured wheelchair sports environment that continues to grow with every Paralympic Games. The Summer Paralympic Games provide for wheelchair sports across a range of disciplines, the best known of which are within those sports that comprise track and field. Wheelchair athletes compete in a variety of races, ranging from the 100 m track event to the marathon (26.2 mi, or 42.2 km).
The wheelchairs currently used by disabled athletes are remarkable feats of engineering. The sleek frames are composed of a combination of lightweight titanium and composite carbon fiber materials. The two larger rear wheels and the smaller lead wheels are configured for both aerodynamic effect as well as the propulsion efficiency of the athlete. The athlete is usually tightly strapped into the wheelchair, to eliminate any bounce on the part of the body that would detract from the efficient forward motion of the wheelchair. The combination of wheelchair technology and the muscular power developed by the racer has resulted in the elite wheelchair-powered racers being faster than able-bodied runners at all distances greater than 800 m.
The wheelchair team sports of the Summer Paralympics represent both modified traditional Olympic summer sports and adaptive events. The best known of the wheelchair team sports is basketball, which has been played in various parts of the world since the late 1940s. Wheelchair technology has greatly improved the range of techniques available to the wheelchair basketball player; a three or four wheel, lightweight chair is now used, with two built-in anti-tipping devices used to stabilize the chair on contact with another competitor. The wheelchairs used by forwards are constructed with an elevated seat; those used by the guards are lower seated, permitting the player to move and react more quickly to the play.
The other summer Paralympics team sports employ wheelchairs specifically modified for each event. Dance sport, fencing, rugby (an indoor variant of the outdoor game), and tennis could not be performed without the technological benefits in modern wheelchair construction. As an example, the lightweight tennis wheelchair employs a pivoting front wheel to permit the player to move quickly in any direction to make a return to an opponent.
The Winter Paralympics do not provide as many competitive opportunities for the wheelchair athlete, given the presence of snow and the nature of the Alpine terrain. Curling was introduced as a winter wheelchair sport at the 2006 Winter Paralympics, with specialized chairs adapted to permit both the throw of the curling stones as well as to facilitate the sweeping of the ice to control the speed and the direction of the stones.
Wheelchair racing has continued to enjoy popularity beyond the scope of the Paralympics. Many international marathon races have provided for a wheelchair division for many years. These specialty machines are built with larger than typical wheels for propulsion, and a small lead wheel built on an elongated structure extending from the wheelchair. The athlete is seated as low to the ground as is possible, while still permitting the athlete to direct maximum muscular power to the wheels. The large wheels are very thin, to create a more aerodynamic profile. Many competitors also race with the wheels of the chair aligned in a negative camber, where the top of the wheel is angled toward the chair. This alignment permits the racers to corner more aggressively at high speeds, a significant benefit on marathon road courses with a number of turns, as well as permitting the athlete to direct maximum muscular power from the arms positioned as closely as possible to the wheel.
In recent years, there have been incursions into the realm of extreme sports by wheelchair athletes. Examples of these activities include hang gliding and use of a wheelchair that approximates the all-terrain experience of mountain biking, using a very durable, well-cushioned frame equipped with a braking system.