Paralympics 101: Stars, sports and stats

9:52 am on 8 September 2016

Rio 2016 Paralympics - While newly-minted Olympians around the globe are on valedictory tours of schools and sports clubs, the world's Paralympians are setting their sights on Rio gold.

Once today's opening ceremony is out of the way, it will be game on for 4350 athletes from nearly 160 countries.

Here's what you need to know to follow the action over the next two weeks.

In the lead-up to the Rio 2016 Paralympics, German long jumper Markus Rehm performed a leap that would have won gold at the London 2012 Olympics.

In the lead-up to the Rio 2016 Paralympics, German long jumper Markus Rehm performed a leap that would have won gold at the London 2012 Olympics. Photo: AFP

Which sports are in contention?

Athletes will compete in 22 different sports at this year's Paralympics, with 528 gold medals to be won across different events and athlete classifications.

Some sports, such as swimming, archery and athletics, have featured at the Games since the very first Paralympics in 1960.

Others are making their debut. The two new disciplines at the 2016 Games are para-canoe, where athletes in three different classes will race over a 200m course, and the triathlon, which will take place this weekend.

Goalball players aim to hurl a ball past the opposing team into a goal running the width of the court.

Goalball players aim to hurl a ball past the opposing team into a goal running the width of the court. Photo: AFP

The Rio Games will also feature two sports specific to the Paralympics - boccia and goalball.

Boccia, which has been contested at nine Paralympics now, is related to petanque or bowls, with competitors throwing or rolling balls as close as possible to a 'jack'.

Goalball is played by athletes who are blind or have another visual impairment. Three-player teams try to throw a large rubber ball past their opponents, into a goal stretching the width of the playing court.

All goalball players wear eyemasks to make sure the game is fair, and the ball contains bells so the players can hear it to defend opponents' shots. For this reason, spectators have to be completely silent while a game is in progress.

Who's competing?

158 countries have qualified to take part in the Rio 2016 Paralympics. This year - as at the Olympics - a refugee team is also participating, under the Independent Paralympic Athletes banner.

Ibrahim Al Hussein is one of two athletes competing in a special refugee team at the Rio Paralympics.

Ibrahim Al Hussein is one of two athletes competing in a special refugee team at the Rio Paralympics. Photo: AFP

The two members of the team are Syrian-born swimmer Ibrahim Al Hussein - who carried the Rio 2016 Olympic torch through Athens during the torch relay - and Iranian discus thrower Shahrad Nasajpour, who lives in the US.

Speaking of the US: unsurprisingly, they top the all-time Paralympic medal table, with 1939 medals won at 14 different Games. They'll be back in force at Rio, with a 267-strong team.

One country that won't be at this year's Paralympics is Russia, whose athletes were banned as punishment for the country's state-backed doping programme. Just today, 10 Russian athletes lost their final court bid to compete.

What are the must-see events?

Irish sprinter Jason Smyth - the world's fastest Paralympian - will be defending his 2008 and 2012 gold medals in the men's 100m and 200m (T12) events.

Irish sprinter Jason Smyth - the world's fastest Paralympian - will be defending his 2008 and 2012 gold medals in the men's 100m and 200m (T12) events. Photo: AFP

The Games' first gold medal is up for grabs at 1am NZT this Friday, when competitors will line up for the men's T11 (visual impairment) 5000m final.

The same day marks the start of New Zealand's campaign in the pool, where our athletes - spearheaded by gold medallists Sophie Pascoe, Cameron Leslie and Mary Fisher - are hoping to clean up.

All things going well, Leslie will race in his first final - the men's 200m freestyle (S5) - just after 11am NZT, while Pascoe and Fisher race in their first heats early the next morning.

The athletics programme gets under way in earnest on Saturday NZT, with the world's fastest Paralympians in action in the sprint events.

The boccia competition starts on Sunday, with the first finals scheduled for next Tuesday.

And who are the stars?

Sophie Pascoe

New Zealand's Sophie Pascoe is chasing down five medals in the pool. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

  • Jason Smyth (Ireland) - Smyth will be chasing down a triple-double when he takes to the track for the men's 100m and 200m sprints (T12), events he won at both Beijing 2008 and London 2012.
  • Omara Durand (Cuba) - The world's fastest female Paralympian will defend her 2012 gold medal in the women's 100m sprint (T13) on Monday morning NZT.
  • Matt Stutzman (US) - Dubbed the 'Armless Archer', the London 2012 silver medallist is aiming for gold this time in the men's individual compound archery event. Wielding his bow and arrows with only his mouth and feet, Stutzman's International Paralympic Committee profile calls him one of the most incredible Paralympians to watch live.
  • Daniel Dias (Brazil) - Host-country hero Dias has already won 10 gold medals in swimming, but will seek to add seven more to that total to become the most successful male Paralympian of all time, in any sport. It's a huge ask - but he's already done it before, winning seven gold medals at last year's para-swimming world championships.
  • Sophie Pascoe (New Zealand) - Pascoe won her first three Paralympic gold medals when she was just 15, at the 2008 Beijing Games. She added three more at London 2012 and is chasing gold in five events this time round - in the 50m freestyle, 100m freestyle, 100m backstroke, 100m butterfly and 200m individual medley (all S10).
  • Markus Rehm (Germany) - The 'Blade Jumper' managed such an incredible long jump at the 2015 athletics world championships that it surpassed the gold-medal-winning leap at the London 2012 Olympic Games.

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