Why Paralympics documentary Rising Phoenix is a must-watch

Ross McMullan, September 2020
A young woman runs on a training track while a man times her with a stopwatch.
Taonere Banda, Malawi's first Paralympian, training before the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games.

“In Paralympic sport, everyone has a story.”
-Xavi González, former director of the International Paralympic Committee

Rising Phoenix (available on Netflix in the UK) features intimate interviews with elite athletes and insiders on the origins, creators and history of the Paralympic Games. As campaign officer for Sightsavers’ Equal World disability rights campaign, I’d naturally been looking forward to watching the documentary. But it’s a great watch for anyone (not just those of us with a professional interest) and I’d thoroughly recommend it as an important and powerful film.

The documentary examines the fight for recognition and rights of people with disability to compete on a global stage. And while much has been achieved, it’s also clear that there’s still a lot of work to do. Here are three key takeaways from Rising Phoenix:

The Paralympic movement has been around for more than 70 years

The man credited with creating the Paralympic games (or the Paralympic movement, as it is commonly referred to throughout the film) is Sir Ludwig Guttman, a Jewish refugee who fled Nazi Germany with his family in 1939 just before the start of the second world war. Guttman was a doctor who eventually came to work in Stoke Mandeville hospital in Buckinghamshire, UK, treating injured veterans who had acquired disabilities during the war. Guttman believed sport was a key component in rehabilitation of the people he worked with. This belief led to the inaugural ‘Stoke Mandeville Games’ – involving sixteen athletes – which took place on 29 July 1948, the same day as the opening of the London Olympic Games. This event gave birth to the Paralympic movement we have now. It took off in its popularity, with other countries sending their athletes to compete, and in 1960 the first official Paralympic Games took place in parallel with the Olympic Games in Rome (the documentary also explains that ‘parallel’ is where the name ‘Paralympics’ originated, not ‘paralysed’ as many people have assumed).

The Paralympic Games have played a key role in giving recognition to people with disabilities, even when their very existence was denied.

In 1980, the Summer Paralympics were held in Arnhem in the Netherlands, but the Olympic Games were held in the Soviet Union. This was because the USSR denied the existence of any disabled people in the country and refused to host the Paralympic Games as a result. The issue of people with disabilities being hidden from society is one that still exists in many countries today.

In the film, Eva Loeffler (Ludwig Guttman’s daughter) provides her recollection of the 100 metres final at the London 2012 Paralympics: “Johnnie Peacock was running, and there were 80,000 people in the Olympic Stadium. And they weren’t shouting and clapping and cheering because they were seeing disabled people. They were shouting because they were seeing a great sporting event. And that just brought it home to me, what the Paralympics mean.”

The fight for recognition continues (and it will succeed!)

Despite the success of the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, four years later the Games nearly didn’t happen at all. The film provides insight from members of the International Paralympic Committee on the fight to ensure the money for the 2016 Rio Games was released by Brazil’s organising committee.

In the documentary, Sir Philip Craven (International Paralympic Committee President from 2001-2017) explains that that when they hit problems, “…our movement’s gonna come around and say, ‘Hey, you’re not doing this to us. We’re gonna have our Games, and we are gonna get our message out there, and we are gonna help change society and make this planet a better place to live on.’”

The Paralympics is now one of the world’s largest sporting events, but the fight for its vision to be realised, like the global fight for disability rights, continues.

The Duke of Sussex, featured in the documentary, spoke about the ongoing challenge of tackling disability discrimination, saying: “Sir Ludwig’s vision has not really been completed, because still, those that are referred to as being disabled are not being encouraged, or not being accepted back into the society at large. What Sir Ludwig was trying to do back then is needed more than it’s ever been.”

The Paralympic Games – and the Paralympic movement – are a critical force for change in the continuing fight for the rights of people with disabilities to be recognised and upheld.

At the end of Rising Phoenix, Paralympic athletics champion Tatyana McFadden sums up the importance of the Paralympic Games, describing it as “so much more than just winning medals” and she’s absolutely right.

Rising Phoenix is essential viewing – give it a watch, then join us in the fight for disability rights!

A woman sits in a wheelchair wearing colourful clothes.

Join our campaign

Our Equal World campaign fights for the rights of people with disabilities.

More on the campaign


Sightsavers logo.Ross McMullan
Ross is Sightsavers’ campaign officer, working on the Equal World disability rights campaign.
LinkedIn  Twitter

Read about Sightsavers’ commitment to inclusion

Social Inclusion Working Group
The Tropical Data team working on trachoma surveys in Arusha in 2019.
Sightsavers blog

Q&A with Sarah Boyd: how we are moving Tropical Data forward through COVID-19

We speak to Tropical Data’s data analyst, Sarah Boyd, to find out what she and the team have been working on while travel hasn’t been possible and many of us have been advised to stay at home.

Sightsavers, August 2020
A boy washes his face at a well in Turkana, Kenya. Good hygiene is key to reducing the incidence of Trachoma and other eye conditions.
Sightsavers blog

World Water Week 2020: Bringing WASH and NTD sectors together will improve millions of lives

For World Water Week 2020, Sightsavers comes together with the Kenyan ministry of health to advocate for stronger partnerships between WASH and NTD sectors.

Gertrude Oforiwa Fefoame speaking into a microphone.
Sightsavers blog

“A devastating toll”: COVID-19 and intersecting forms of discrimination

COVID-19 has shown the need for systems to accommodate the new risks we face. Why not take the opportunity to build them back in a way that is inclusive?