From a small archery competition to the biggest sport event for athletes with disabilities.
Today the Paralympic Games is the biggest multi-sport event for disabled athletes in the world. Participation spans 160 countries and covers six classification groups from those with spinal cord injuries to the visually impaired. The Paralympics have grown from the Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralyzed.
The founder of these games was one of the most eminent specialists for spinal cord injuries, Dr. Ludwig Guttmann. He started work at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1944, where he faced the possibility of receiving large numbers of wounded soldiers. But, medical issues were not on top of the list of his worries. A far bigger concern was how to overcome the widely held belief, both within the medical profession and among the public, that patients, once they had been paralyzed, faced a pointless future and could never be reintegrated into society.
Guttmann fundamentally disagreed with the commonly held medical view on a paraplegic patient’s future and felt it essential to restore hope and self-belief in his patients as well as practical re-training, so when they were well enough to leave they could once more contribute to society.
He achieved this firstly by changing the way they were treated – he had them moved regularly to avoid the buildup of pressure sores and the possibility of urinary tract infections developing – and secondly by engaging them in physical and skill-based activities. Sports like Archery improved their mental well being while learning new skills, such as woodwork, clock and watch repair and typing, would ensure they would be employable. Guttmann was fully aware of the positive and psychological benefits of physical activity. Sports became integral to the rehabilitation program. And it was the sport of Archery that led to the very first competition between disabled athletes. Guttmann chose July 28, 1948 to host an archery event between two teams of disabled athletes, exactly the same day more than 4,000 non-disabled athletes from 59 countries took part in the Opening Ceremony of the XIV Olympic Games at Wembley. For Guttmann it was a demonstration to the public that competitive sport is not the prerogative of the able-bodied. In 1949, just a year later, more hospitals and participants took part in a summer sports festival which became known as the Stoke Mandeville Games. Year after year the number of participants at the Stoke Mandeville Games, and the sports on offer, grew as word spread among the different spinal hospitals around the country. In 1952 the Stoke Mandeville Games became international, involving war veterans and patients from the Netherlands, Canada, Egypt, Finland, Australia. Guttmann’s prophesy that the Stoke Mandeville Games would achieve world fame as the disabled person’s equivalent of the Olympic Games has come true.
By the late 1950s Guttmann, the Italian Istituto Nazionale per l’Assicurazione contro gli Infortuni sul Lavoro (INAIL) and a spinal unit in Rome were already discussing the possibility of holding the 1960 Stoke Mandeville International Games outside Britain for the first time. As the Olympic Games were being held in Rome that year Guttmann saw no reason why the International Games couldn’t be held there too. And the Italians supported him. The XVII Olympic Games ended on September 11, 1960 and just one week later, September 18, 400 disabled athletes, representing 21 nations (including USA, Yugoslavia, Israel, Greece) assembled for the first overseas Stoke Mandeville Games for those with spinal cord injuries. Other impairment classes, such as those for athletes who were blind and visually impaired , amputees and had cerebral palsy were not added for many years. Archery, wheelchair basketball, dartarchery, wheelchair fencing, athletics, snooker, swimming, table tennis, pentathlon were the sports athletes were competing. Rome would later become known as the first Paralympic Games. There were glitches, of course, but the first overseas Games were a great success, not just for the organisers and athletes, but for the message of hope and possibility they sent to the disabled community around the world.
“The action taken by the Stoke Mandeville Games Committee to hold the Games from time to time outside England is marvelous… It has made many people talk about, and follow up news of the Games – especially those paraplegics all over the world who are very depressed and of low morale”.
Special Edition of The Cord, after the 1960 Games
Initially Guttmann was adamant the Games would only be open to those with spinal cord injuries and for 16 years this remained the case. In 1976, though this changed with the addition of two new athlete classes; athletes with a visual impairment and athletes who were amputees. Four years later, athletes with cerebral palsy were added and in 1984 a fifth category, called ‘les autres’ which covers athletes who do not fit into the other categories already outlined. In 1996 the sixth, and to date, final impairment group was added for the first time, athletes with an intellectual disability, known in the UK as learning disability. Although athletes with an intellectual disability were admitted in 1996 not long after Sydney 2000 was over, the very next Games, they were out again due to the fact that the athletes in this group have not been tested adequately before classification, and it turned out that among the members of one of the teams at the Sydney Games were those with no impairment. After an investigation athletes with learning disability were banned from participation in future Games until a more robust, accurate way could be found to verify an athlete’s disability within a particular sport. In 2009 the IPC were satisfied of new testing methods ensuring athletes with learning disability could compete in three of the 20 sports at London – athletics, swimming and table tennis. The decision meant that for London 2012 the number of disability groups returned to six for the first time in more than a decade.
The number of sports on the Paralympic Games and the number of athletes competing continues to grow as the Paralympic Movement embraces those wishing to be part of it. In 1960, 400 athletes from 21 nations took part in nine events. In 2012, more than 4200 from 164 countries competed in 20 sports. But it does not stop there. Along with existing sports, it was announced that Para-Canoe and Para-Triathlon were the two sports chosen to make their debuts in the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016. This will take the number of sports from 20 to 22. However, it is important to emphasize the difference between the Paralympics and Special Olympics. They are similar in that they both focus on sport for athletes with a disability and are run by international non-profit organizations. Apart from that, Special Olympics and the Paralympics differ in three main areas: 1. the disability categories of the athletes that they work with, 2. the criteria and philosophy under which athletes participate, and 3. the structure of their respective organizations. Special Olympics welcomes all athletes with intellectual disabilities. Special Olympics believes deeply in the power of sports to help all who participate to fulfill their potential. On the other hand to participate in the Paralympic Games, athletes have to fulfill certain criteria and meet certain qualifying standards, determined by relevant judges, in order to be eligible.
From a small archery competition in 1948 involving 16 paralysed British war veterans, evolved a major international sport event featuring elite athletes with all kinds of disabilities. All thanks to good will and perseverance of doctors – the first organizers of the games, and people with disabilities who have had faith in their abilities and desire to compete and show themsleves and their community that despite disabilities they can be involved in sports and achieve their dreams. Today, the Paralympic Games bring together athletes with disabilities whose successes and achievements motivate and inspire not only others with similar problems, but also people around the world who do not have contact with this brave community whose members never give up.