Sports

How The Paralympics Came To Be: Remembering The International Stoke Mandeville Games

Before the modern Paralympics, there were the International Stoke Mandeville Games. They were born out of a world at war, and changed perceptions of disability for good.

by Will Magee
Sep 8 2016, 1:55pm

Athletes at the 1960 Stoke Mandeville Games, Rome // Via Flickr

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

Come the end of the Second World War, there were hundreds of thousands of people in the United Kingdom living with severe disabilities. For the first time in history, Britain had been subject to a systematic bombing campaign, and had seen its civilians embroiled in total war. Not only were thousands of men maimed in mainland Europe, North Africa and the Far East, there were thousands of non-combatants left with life-threatening injuries. Britain was a nation counting its losses, and learning to live in a wounded world.

It was out of that world that, in 1948, the Stoke Mandeville Games was born. Otherwise known as the Wheelchair Games, the event was timed to coincide with the London Olympics. Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire was one of the main rehabilitation centres for wounded veterans, hence the Games being held on its grounds. The participants were drawn from soldiers with spinal cord injuries, all of whom were having to come to terms with some form of paralysis.

Dr. Ludwig Guttman // Via

The Games were organised by a neurologist at the hospital named Dr. Ludwig Guttmann. He was a crucial part of the rehabilitation programme at Stoke Mandeville, and had done pioneering research on spinal injuries for over a decade. Guttmann had his own wounds from the Second World War, even if they were psychological as opposed to physical. Born into a Jewish family in Upper Silesia, he had fled Nazi persecution in 1939.

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Having been provided with a visa to travel to Portugal by the authorities, he had been ordered to go and treat a friend of right-wing dictator António de Oliveira Salazar. Instead of returning to Germany, he fled to Britain, where he was aided by the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (CARA). Had they not been able to help Guttmann, he and his family would have faced almost certain death. Had Guttmann not come to the United Kingdom, likewise, thousands of wounded veterans might never have gone on to live free, dignified and active lives.

It is no exaggeration to say that Guttman revolutionised perceptions of disability. Prior to the Stoke Mandeville Games, the idea of using sport in the rehabilitation of paralysed patients was practically unprecedented, and the outlook for disabled people was one of permanent dependance and deteriorating health. For those with spinal cord injuries, life expectancy was still shockingly low. There was little hope given to the disabled and, in the case of injured soldiers, there was minimal optimism when it came to their chances of regaining their previous capabilities, or enjoying the same activities as before.

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The aim of the Stoke Mandeville Games was not only to distract and entertain the veterans, but also to help them come to terms with their injuries. Guttman wanted to show his patients that, even with debilitating spinal damage, they could still participate in athletics and sport. While this doubtlessly gave them a psychological boost in their recovery, it also reflected Guttman's belief that exercise should play a crucial part in his patients' physical rehabilitation. That was a radical idea in the context of contemporary medicine, and one that has ultimately been vindicated in the time since.

Though the 1948 Stoke Mandeville Games were only open to former soldiers, they were the start of something all-encompassing. In 1952, Dutch veterans took part alongside their British counterparts, making the Games an international affair. Over the next few years, the event was expanded further, and became known as the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports World Games, or International Stoke Mandeville Games for short. In 1960, at the same time as the Rome Olympics, the event was opened up to any competitor with a spinal cord injury, not just war veterans. This was the start of an elite sporting event for disabled athletes; the modern Paralympics as we know it today.

The development of the Paralympics since then is well-documented. In 1976, the Games were expanded to include not only competitors in wheelchairs, but athletes with other disabilities, who competed in different classifications and groups. In 1988, after the Seoul Olympics, the term 'Paralympic' first came into common use. Since then, the Paralympic Games has grown considerably in terms of exposure, funding and general popularity. None of that could have happened without Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, and his desire to show that disability need not be an obstacle to sport.

When Guttman set out to improve the lives of his patients at Stoke Mandeville, he set in motion a series of events which would change the way the world viewed disability. The significance of the Games went beyond injured soldiers, beyond the field of neurology and far, far beyond Buckinghamshire, eventually coming to encompass the globe. While Guttman himself changed perceptions of living with paralysis, the Paralympic Games have had an enormous impact on attitudes towards disabilities across the board. When people the world over watch the Paralympics in Rio, they are watching the successor to the Stoke Mandeville Games.

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