Union Jack News
THE LONDON 2012 Paralympic Games will be the biggest ever staged, welcoming a record number of athletes who will compete in front of sell-out crowds.
But this major sporting event had small beginnings, starting its life as an Archery contest in 1948 involving 16 paralysed ex-servicemen – organised by neurologist Ludwig Guttmann, hailed the founding father of the Paralympics.
The visionary neurosurgeon is being celebrated at an exhibition at London’s Jewish Museum, in Camden Town.
Guttmann was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who had arrived in Oxford, England, in March 1939 with his wife and two children. In 1944, Dr Guttmann became founder and head of a new Spinal Injuries Unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire, catering for disabled World War II servicemen.
Guttmann pioneered a rehabilitation programme that was revolutionary for its time; he advocated athletic competition as therapy for patients with spinal injuries in a bid to help them regain fitness and restore self-esteem. This came at a time when paralysed patients were sedated and were discouraged from moving, which led to rotting bed sores, kidney infections and even pneumonia.
At a conference in 1962, Dr Guttmann said: “One patient told me ‘I’m waiting for God almighty to take me up.’ I told him ‘While you are waiting, you can do some work’.”
Guttmann soon discovered that competition made his patients work harder and he dreamed of creating an Olympic Games for disabled men and women. Initially he got patients involved in wheelchair field hockey but this became too violent so he introduced wheelchair basketball.
Although many of them found the training tough, the patients referred to Guttmann affectionately as “Poppa”.
On the opening day of the London Olympics on 28 July 1948, Guttmann hosted an Archery contest at Stoke Mandeville, the two competing teams comprising 16 paralysed war veterans. Named the Stoke Mandeville Games, it was to be the precursor to the Paralympic Games.
These annual Stoke Mandeville Games went international in 1952 with the inclusion of Dutch ex-servicemen. This eventually evolved into the Paralympic Games, which were staged for the first time in Rome in 1960.
Guttmann continued his ground-breaking work, becoming an international authority on spinal cord injuries. He received widespread honours and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1966. Sir Ludwig Guttmann died in 1980, but he leaves behind an extraordinary legacy.
The ‘Ludwig Guttmann: Father of the Paralympic Games’ exhibition will run until Sunday 16 September at the Jewish Museum.