The first Paralympics took place in Rome in 1960. But this was not the beginning of competitive sport for people with disabilities; indeed, the origins of the Paralympics can partly be traced to the aftermath of the Second World War and the work undertaken at Stoke Mandeville Hospital.
And nor was it the culmination of such work; the Paralympics in Rome were only open to those with mobility or physical disabilities, who made use of wheelchairs. It would be another sixteen years before the Paralympics were opened to those with a wider range of disabilities; for example, for those with hearing or visual disabilities, or other physical disabilities that did not require a wheelchair.
So in this special blog, using newspapers from The Archive, we will explore the birth of the Paralympic Games, how it was born out of war and a quest for peace. We will look at the work of Sir Ludwig Guttman, and how his dream of an Olympics for the disabled would finally come true. Furthermore, we will also look at the pioneering athletes who competed in both the early Paralympics and its precursors.
Before we begin, it is important to point out that newspapers from the past often use out-dated terms to refer to disability, using words and phrases that would not be employed today.
Disability in the Early Olympics
Before looking at the work of Sir Ludwig Guttman at Stoke Mandeville Hospital from 1944 onwards, there were some instances of disabled athletes taking part in the Olympic Games prior to the Second World War.
For example, in the third modern Olympic Games, held in St. Louis in 1904, American gymnast George Eyser ‘won two golds, a silver, and a bronze.’ What was particularly impressive about these feats, as the Sunday Tribune recalls nearly a century later, was that Eyser had overcome ‘the fact he had a wooden leg.’
Eyser had lost part of his left leg when it was run over by a train, but with the help of a wooden prosthesis, he was able to compete to an Olympic level.
Károly Takács lost the use of his right hand in 1938 while serving in the Hungarian Army when a defective grenade exploded prematurely. Takács, who had been a member of his country’s pistol shooting team, was not to be deterred, however. On his release from hospital he taught himself to shoot with his left hand and won the national championship the following year.
More achievements were in store for the Hungarian. After winning the national championship, he:
…travelled to London in 1948 to compete in the rapid-fire pistol event where he won the gold medal, beating the world record by 10 points. Four years later, Takács defended his Olympic title in Helsinki.
But despite the Olympic victories obtained by both George Eyser and Károly Takács, there was no dedicated space for those with disabilities to participate in competitive sport. That would change, however, with the onset of the Second World War.
‘Mending Broken Bodies and Spirits’
In February 1946 the Daily Mirror ran the following headline: ‘Wheel-chair polo side are pukka at chukkers.’ It described how a team of patients at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, ‘paralysed below the waist,’ took on a team of doctors, winning the match 10-0.
The man behind the idea of wheelchair polo was Doctor Ludwig Guttman, a German Jew who had fled Germany in 1939, and had helped to establish the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, which opened in February 1944.
He told the Daily Mirror in February 1946 that:
The aim is to exercise the muscles in the back, arms and stomach. The men love it. They are so fast they have beaten every team of fit men who have played them. They beat 12-0 the nursing orderlies and, after the therapy specialists had a special five weeks’ training, they still won 5-1.
But who was Ludwig Guttman? Born to a Jewish family in Tost, Germany, in 1899, Guttman qualified as a neurosurgeon, and managed to escape the Nazi regime in early 1939, having been granted a visa to go to Portugal and treat dictator António de Oliveira Salazar.
In 1943 the British Government approached Guttman to set up a centre for spinal injuries, catering mainly to those members of the RAF who had been involved in aircraft accidents and as a result had been paralysed.
Your muscles will soon grow strong enough for you to take up a sport, and then you will be fit to take your place in the world again.
The Sligo Champion in 1983 recalls how as ‘the result of many years of research,’ Guttman ‘came to the conclusion that active participation in sport [had] a therapeutic value for the physically disabled.’
And so, as the Liverpool Echo writes, with these ‘organised sporting contests,’ Guttman had the ‘triumph’ of ‘mending broken bodies and spirits.’
The Stoke Mandeville Games
The Stoke Mandeville Games for disabled war veterans was first held at Stoke Mandeville Hospital on the 29 July 1948, coinciding with the first day of the London Olympic Games. Initially held on a national level, by 1952 the annual competition had grown to incorporate international competitors.
The Chaseley archery team won a shield at this year’s International Spinal Sports Festival at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, main spinal centre of the country, where Dr. Ludwig Guttman hopes one day to stage an equivalent to the Olympic Games among people who, though confined to wheel chairs, can perform amazing feats.
Guttman’s dream was on its way to becoming a reality, as the Stoke Mandeville Games began to grow and grow in popularity. By the next year, 1953, the Bucks Herald reports how there was ‘world-wide interest in the Stoke Mandeville international event,’ in which ‘Competitors from each of the five continents arrived to take part.’
The Bucks Herald details how the organisers of the Stoke Mandeville Games hoped to make it ‘the Olympics of the world of paralysis.’ Competing in the 1953 Games were:
Teams…from the Netherlands, Canada, Finland, Israel and France, and there were ten other teams from hospitals and homes throughout Great Britain. In addition there were two ‘Old Boys’ and one ‘Old Girls’ team. One of the hospital teams also added to the international aspect, for it was composed entirely of Poles, from Penley, Denbighshire.
What sports were played at this event? The Bucks Herald describes how the teams competed in ‘archery, dartarchery – a mix of darts and archery – netball, throwing the javelin, table tennis and snooker.’ There was also a display of swimming performed in the hospital’s new pool, which was ‘constructed by the Ministries of Pensions and Works to a plan of Dr. Guttman’s.’
At the prize-giving a message from then Prime Minister Winston Churchill was read out:
I send my greetings to all who are taking part in the Stoke Mandeville Games, and wish them, from whatever country they come, a very happy afternoon.
And then Minister of Pensions Derick Heathcoat-Amory gave a speech in which he lauded ”the really wonderful work’ being done at Stoke Mandeville Hospital,’ and the ‘demonstration of what the human spirit can do where there is pluck, grit, tenacity and inspired guidance’ on the part of the patients there, and the competitors taking part in the Games.
The Initiative Grows
A Dutch resolution urging annual international sports events for war invalids will come before the World Veterans Federation annual assembly when it meets at The Hague from November 16-19.
And not only did the Federation advocate for those injured during the war, it advocated for peace between nations who had only recently been at war:
The federation is non-political. A measure of its success in its aim of fostering peace is the fact it embraces countries who were once enemies, such as Israel and Egypt, or Italy and Yugoslavia. Other member countries are Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, the Gold Coast, Greece, India, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, the Philippines, Turkey and the United States.
Germany and Japan were set too to join; a watershed moment for the World Veterans Federation.
About 280 competitors are taking part and countries they represent include Great Britain, United States, Norway, Denmark, Canada, France, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Israel, Finland, Malta, Singapore, Australia and South Africa.
Presenting prizes was Sir Roger Bannister, with swimming, basketball and fencing some of the events in which the athletes competed.
All the while, Doctor Guttman continued his campaign for an Olympics for the disabled, addressing a conference of 1,000 people from 40 countries in London. He told the congress, as reported in the Northern Whig, that he ‘looked forward to the day when the Olympic Games would include special sections for disabled athletes competing in their own sports.’
In the same year, 343 disabled athletes again gathered at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. This was a seminal event, for the Buckinghamshire Examiner labelled it the ‘Bucks Para-Olympics,’ the first use of the word we could find in our newspaper Archive. The Duchess of Gloucester opened the event, accompanied ‘by a wheelchair guard of honour, which was made up of representatives of countries as far away as Australia, United States and Argentina.’
Britain had different national teams competing at the event, often grouped together by the facility in which they were making their recovery, or by Old Boys or Girls, those patients who had been discharged.
The Buckinghamshire Examiner gives us a flavour of some of the highlights of the Games, for instance describing ‘a world-record javelin throw’ undertaken by J. Thompson, of Hexham, Northumberland, which measured 67 feet and 10 inches.
Meanwhile Stoke Mandeville patients Julia Brockell and Diana Gubbins came first and second in the women’s fencing foils, with the Stoke Mandeville team also triumphing in the A section table tennis singles and doubles.
‘Two Olympics in Rome’
In October 1959 the Liverpool Echo announced:
Rome next year will be the scene of not one great sports gatherings but two. The 1960 Olympic Games will be followed immediately by the Paralympics…The competitors in these contests, which will be held in the Olympic Stadium, will perform mainly from wheelchairs.
The newspaper highlighted the enormous benefits of such a sporting event being made available to those with disabilities, quoting physiotherapist Eileen Perrotet:
The incentive of the Paralympics…had given many paraplegics a new interest in life, and had made them feel that their handicap was not the end of life for them.
Indeed, the press of the time began to give space to disabled athletes. The Neath Guardian reports on Dave Winters of Port Talbot, who was ‘busily training for the Para-Olympics in Rome.’ Winters had been injured ‘during the Normandy invasion in 1944,’ and was ‘regarded as one of the finest exponents of fencing in the country.’
Meanwhile the Harrow Observer shines a light on the ‘indomitable spirit‘ of Phyllis Waller, a 23-year-old from South Harrow, another fencer. Paralysed just a year before due to a spinal abscess, Phyllis was a patient at Stoke Mandeville, and she had been chosen to ‘compete in fencing and swimming.’ Phyllis was due to have another operation upon her return.
Italy won with 59 points with Britain second with 55. In the women’s freestyle (Class C2) Mrs. Joan Horan (Dublin) gained her second gold medal. Her first was at archery on Wednesday.
400 athletes competing at the Games were received by the Pope, with Italy coming top of the medals table, beating 20 other countries with 173 points. Britain were second with 101, and the United States third with 73.
Rome and Beyond
There was still more to be done, however. With three Paralympics having passed, there was a desire for more of a spotlight to be shone on the achievements of disabled athletes. Still, also, in 1972, other disabilities were yet to be incorporated into the Paralympic programme.
In March 1972, with the Heidelberg Paralympic Games on the horizon, the Drogheda Argus and Leinster Journal featured this plea from Derrick King, development manager of the Irish Wheelchair Association:
They were very proud of their achievements in the world of sport of their members, and it was very significant that while there was a lot of publicity to the one bronze medal which Ireland had won at the last Olympic Games for boxing, there was scant mention of the fact that their members had returned from Tel Aviv with six silver and four bronze medals.
He hoped for more coverage from Irish national television and the press, but acknowledged how his organisation in conjunction with the Paralympic Games had resulted ‘in disability being taken out of the cupboards.’
Sightless yet able to throw the discus, put the shot, take part in archery, swimming and basket ball, all competitively and to Olympic standards. Amputees of one or more limbs playing volley ball, basket ball, archery and swimming, this too with the Olympics as a goal. What an achievement!
It was an achievement indeed – for this was the first Paralympics to feature athletes with other disabilities, such as those with visual impairments, and amputees. As the Sligo Champion recalls in 1983, the 1976 Paralympics saw the largest gathering of disabled athletes in the history of the Games, with 1,560 in attendance. Numbers rose in 1980 for the Arnhem Paralympics to 2,750 athletes from 55 nations.
1988 became another seminal year for the Paralympic Games. Held in Seoul, it was the first to share the same facilities as those used in the Olympic Games.
This is a special year for disability sport in Great Britain as it marks the 50th anniversary when Sir Ludwig Guttman first started the International games at Stoke Mandeville in 1948.
The newspaper focuses on the achievements of 15-year-old Lisa Callaghan, from Duleek, who had just celebrated her birthday at the Disability World Championships in Birmingham by coming fourth in the discus competition.
Her mother Maria told the Drogheda Independent:
It’s important to note that Paralympic means ‘next to’ or ‘parallel to’ the regular Olympics, the only difference being that the Paralympic movement provides elite competition to athletes with a functional disability.
And we could not sum up this brief exploration of the Paralympic Games any better. It is thanks to the likes of Sir Ludwig Guttman and his patients that disabled athletes were considered worthy of participating in their own games. Change and progress were slow, taking many years to include athletes with other disabilities into disabled sporting events. Much, too, is still to be done to overcome prejudice and ensure equality to those with disabilities across the world. But the Paralympic Games has played a huge part in these missions, thanks to the pioneers of the past, and it will continue to do so, beginning with this year’s Paralympics in Tokyo.