In the early years of wheelchair racing, participants used bulky standard wheelchairs and did not compete in events with distances over 200m. In the 1970s, athletes started to modify wheelchairs for specific sports and began to take an interest in road racing and distances on the track were extended to include races up to 1500m. In 2013, with state of the art race chairs, the record time for a marathon stands at 1.18:25 and 50mph is regularly broken on down hill sections of road races such as the Boston Marathon and the UK Tyne Tunnel 2K.
The earliest wheelchair games recorded in the UK took place as a sports day for staff and patients at the Royal Star and Garter Home in Richmond, Surrey. Paraplegic ex-servicemen raced an obstacle course on long wheelbase tricycle type wheelchairs which strangely bear a resemblance to the to shape of the modern three wheeled race chairs that first appeared in 65 years later.
However, the origins of wheelchair athletics came through the shift in society's view and treatment of disab led people after World War II. Significantly, in 1944, the British government opened the Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, England. Sir Ludwig Guttmann, the director of this centre, introduced competitive sports as an integral part of rehabilitation for disabled veterans. At that time all the sports used the same style of large cumbersome hospital wheelchairs with two large front wheels, one or two smaller back wheels and large tray-type foot rests. The chairs were used for archery, chair-hockey, epee, javelin and even basketball but they were not really suited to racing at all.
The first Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralysed (British Veterans) were held. Sports for rehabilitation spread throughout Europe and the United States with wheelchair sporting events emerging throughout Europe.
The first international competition for athletes in wheelchairs was organized between Britain and the Netherlands. A total of 130 athletes with spinal cord injuries competed in six sports.
The International Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Sports Federation (ISMWSF) was formed, allowing international competitions for individuals with spinal cord injuries only.
The Olympic Games went to Japan and shortly afterwards Tokyo hosted games for disabled athletes which saw the introduction of wheelchair racing. In those early years, participants used every day bulky standard wheelchairs 7-18kg and did not compete in events with distances over 200m.
In 1970, unofficial participant, Eugene Roberts completes the Boston Marathon in a standard wheelchair. Athletes started to modify their wheelchairs for specific sports and began to take an interest in road racing. Slightly larger rear wheels and fatter front pneumatic tyres gave an extra advantage. Racing wheelchairs began to evolve as special-purpose pieces of equipment easily distinguishable from everyday wheelchairs. Distances on the track were extended to include races up to 1500m.
A young paraplegics became the first person to officially compete in the Boston Athletic Association Marathon in a wheelchair. Within a few years, several nationally recognized road races initiated wheelchair divisions and more disabled persons began to train for these races than had ever been anticipated.
The Olympiad for the Physically Disabled in Toronto, Canada sees specialized wheelchairs used.
The early 1980s see the development of more sophisticated racing wheelchairs and training techniques.
The Paralympic Games at Stoke Mandeville was arguably the moment when sports wheelchairs came into their own. For years disabled athletes had struggled with heavy, one-size-fits-all machines for their sports. But by the beginning of the 1980s the combination of new designs, new light-weight materials and new technologies was starting to transform wheelchair sports. However, those chairs still had no steering, four wheels and used of unsophisticated castors. The stable bucket seat did enter the racing scene along with 16” front wheels. Wheelchair racing began the path toward recognition as a legitimate Olympic sport in 1984 when the men's 1500m and the women's 800m wheelchair races were included as demonstration events in the Olympic Games held in Los Angeles, CA. 1985 By 1985, most racing wheelchairs no longer had any components in common with everyday wheelchairs (which had also improved dramatically). George Murray became the first wheelchair racer to break the 4-minute mile.
Three wheeled race chairs start to appear on the scene and over a few years replace four wheeled chairs. This made steering easier and decreased overall weight.
The biggest change in sports racing wheelchair design came after the Seoul Paralympics. Prior to 1988 the rules around wheel chair racing were quite restrictive in terms of what sort of machine you could use. It was Bob Hall, US marathon racer, who designed the first effective and stable three wheeled chair; his design was quickly copied by other athletes.
The wheelbase increased which reduced the weight on the front wheel.
Oversized tubing is used for more rigid frames enabling power to be transferred into speed and not into flexibility in the chair.
Radical change from sitting to the kneeling position arrived allowing for the powerful butterfly style pushing action. This was followed by front fork change and horizontal main frame making for a slightly more aerodynamic chair.
Carbon fibre frames and wheels arrive on the scene, much work is done in wind tunnels, and there are new design in pushing gloves and helmets which all make minor improvements to performance. The distances involved in wheelchair racing include sprint distances of 100m, 200m and 400m, middle distances of 800m and 1500m, long distances of 5000m and 10,000m and relay races of 4 x 100m and 4 x 400m.
Wheelchair categories exist in marathons all around the world including Boston, London, Seoul and Oita. England has the world’s biggest half marathon in the Great North Run. There are numerous 10K, 5K and miscellaneous distance events springing up such as the Tyne Tunnel 2K International where the fastest speed downhill clocked by Canadian, Josh Cassidy is 56mph.
Wheelchair racing is firmly established at Paralympic and Common Wealth Games, the Paralympic World Cup, International competitions and various countries host National Track Championships (like the BWRA National Track Championships every May).