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Paralympics Begin In London, Near 'Spiritual Home' Of Games

More than 4,000 athletes from 147 countries will compete in the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, where the opening ceremony is being held today. The games, which conclude on Sept. 9, include 20 sports such as cycling, judo and swimming — three sports that will hold medal events when competition begins in earnest Thursday.

Update at 4 p.m. ET: Watch It Live.

We've added a live-streaming link so you can view the opening ceremony on YouTube, above. Our original post continues:

The U.S. contingent of 227 athletes includes 133 men and 94 women, from flagbearer Scott Danberg of Florida to wheelchair racer Tatyana McFadden of Illinois. According to the Team USA site, 20 of the American Paralympians are U.S. military veterans.

Our colleagues at WGBH will be reporting from London as part of their Medal Quest series. We'll highlight some of those stories here on the Two Way over the coming days. The Medal Quest site also includes video profiles of U.S. athletes such as Army veteran Kortney Clemons, who lost part of his right leg to an explosion in Iraq. He'll compete in the 100m, 200m and long jump in London.

Wednesday's Paralympics opener won't quite match the scale of the July 27 Olympics gala that celebrated London's diverse identity and Britain's cultural past. But the event features "a cast of more than 3,000 adult volunteers, 100 child volunteers and more than 100 professional performers" putting on a big show in Olympic Stadium, according to London organizers.

And unlike the Olympics, you can watch the Paralympics online without proving that you're a cable or satellite TV customer. Video of the opening ceremony and other events will be on YouTube, and will stream events live.

As USA Today reports, "in the U.S., NBC holds the broadcast rights and plans to show 5½ hours of coverage. None of it will be live."

A record 2.1 million tickets have been sold for the 2012 Paralympics. The global television audience is expected to number around 4 billion viewers.

While the Olympic flame's permanent home is in Greece, the Paralympic flame comes to each competition from a different spot. The 2012 Paralympic flame was lit Tuesday night in Stoke Mandeville, Buckinghamshire, the Paralympics' "spiritual home" where the first large-scale games for disabled athletes were held in 1948.

Because of that connection, the Parlympics is also coming full circle as it takes center stage in London — the games for elite disabled athletes got their start by being paired with the 1948 London Olympics. Back then, they were called the Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralyzed, and they were primarily a way for Britain's wounded World War II veterans to compete against one another.

The Stoke Mandeville competition was the brainchild of neurosurgeon Ludwig Guttmann, who arrived in Britain in 1939 as a German refugee fleeing the persecution of Jews. Toward the end of World War II, Guttman became the director of the Stoke Mandeville Hospital, which treated many war veterans with spinal cord injuries.

Guttman saw physical activity, and athletics in particular, as a way to help his patients boost their physical and mental strength. He had them play "wheelchair polo" — a game he invented that used a ball and long sticks. But "the players suffered severe injuries most of the times they played, so did not play the game for long," according to one report.

Other less-hazardous sports caught on, such as archery and netball. And they eventually became the nucleus of the Paralympic Games. After 1948, the Stoke Mandeville Games blossomed into a true international event. And in 1960, the competition was opened up to athletes other than war veterans.

Over time, the Paralympics began to be held in the same city as the Olympics (starting with Rome in 1960), and in 1976, more classifications were introduced, to allow athletes with a wider range of physical disabilities to compete in the games.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.