Fact Check

What Does the 'Para' In 'Paralympics' Stand For?

If your guesses are "paraplegic" or "paralysis" — try again.

Published Aug. 24, 2021

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 24: Slawomir Szymanski of Team Poland participates in the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on August 24, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images for International Paralympic Committee) (Getty Images)
Image courtesy of Getty Images
The "para" in "Paralympics" means the games run parallel to the Olympics.

A "circus-like opening with acrobats, clowns, vibrant music and fireworks," as described The Associated Press, marked the opening ceremony of the 2021 Paralympics on Aug. 24 at Tokyo's National Stadium.

Following rules to prevent the spread of COVID-19, fans and journalists watched the event from afar. Some of them shared live commentary online. For example, a writer for the UNILAD, a British media company, published an article during the opening ceremony titled, "What The 'Para' In Paralympics Actually Means." It stated:

"With the event well and truly established, some still question the meaning of the word ‘Paralympics’, with some assuming the ‘para’ may have been derived from the word ‘paralysed’ in relation to some impairments athletes may have."

The article cited examples from social media, including a September 2018 tweet in which a user said they "thought 'Para' meant paraplegic," as well as the below-displayed Twitter poll from June 2020. That survey asked, "What does the PARA in Paralympics stand for?" and gives respondents the options of "paralysis," "parallel," "paraplegia," or "all of the above."

Eight users participated, and more than one-third of them selected "paralysis."

But, as the UNILAD article correctly noted, "parallel" was the right choice.

According to the International Paralympic Committee, which governs the event, the prefix "para" in "Paralympics" notes the Games' side-by-side relationship with the Olympics. The committee stated on its website:

The word “Paralympic” derives from the Greek preposition “para” (beside or alongside) and the word “Olympic”.

Its meaning is that Paralympics are the parallel Games to the Olympics and illustrates how the two movements exist side-by-side.

It was true, according to WordReference (an online multilingual dictionary), the prefix "para" at the front of some base words means "at or to one side of, beside, side by side" — or, parallel. Merriam Webster Dictionary's third entry for "para" substantiates that conclusion.

"The Paralympics are about athletic prowess," The Associated Press reported. "The origin of the word is from 'parallel' — an event running alongside the Olympics."

Considering all evidence, especially the explicit statement on the International Paralympic Committee's website, we rate this claim "True."

Jessica Lee is Snopes' Senior Assignments Editor with expertise in investigative storytelling, media literacy advocacy and digital audience engagement.

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