Living the dream: the history of wheelchair sport


The history of wheelchair sport and the need for a positive legacy from the London 2012 Paralympics

A leading neurologist, Ludwig Guttmann, was working at the Jewish Hospital in Breslau before World War II when he was forced to flee Nazi Germany and find refuge in Britain. With the war reaching fever pitch in 1944, and the wounded flooding home, the British government asked Dr Guttmann to establish the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire. As part of a comprehensive medical treatment for veterans with spinal injuries, Guttmann started using sport in his patients’ rehabilitation programmes.

In 1948 Guttmann initiated a competition between Stoke Mandeville Hospital and the Star and Garter Home, London to coincide with the opening ceremony of the 1948 Olympic Games in London. Fourteen servicemen and two servicewomen took part in those first Games, which came to be seen as the birth of the Paralympic Games.

Four years later, competitors from the Netherlands joined the “Stoke Mandeville Games” and Guttmann’s vision of an international sports movement for people with disabilities was born. Olympic style games for athletes with a disability were organised for the first time in Rome in 1960 and, for the first time, were called Paralympics. Even the Pope recognised Guttmann’s achievement when the 400 paralysed men and women from 23 countries took part in the Rome Games. The Pope called Guttmann “the DeCubertin of the paralysed” and Guttmann is still acknowledged as the founding father of the Paralympic Movement.
The competitive programme in Rome included eight sport events considered beneficial and suitable for athletes with spinal cord injuries: snooker, fencing, javelin and precision javelin, shot put, Indian club throwing (throwing a baton), men’s basketball and swimming. Other events were: table tennis, archery, dart archery and the pentathlon.

Originally, the word Paralympic was a pun combining the words “paraplegic” and “Olympic”, but later, as other disability groups were included in the Games, the meaning changed. Paralympic now stands for parallel (from the Greek preposition para) and Olympic, to illustrate how the two movements exist side by side, and Paralympics has been the official term of the Games since 1988.

At the Toronto Paralympics in 1976, specialised racing wheelchairs were introduced and events for amputees and visually impaired athletes were held for the first time. Some nations withdrew due to apartheid South Africa ‘s participation, yet the number of athletes competing grew to 1,657. In the same year, the first Paralympic Winter Games took place in Sweden. Four years later, in Arnhem, Holland, there were events for athletes with cerebral palsy.

In 1984, the Games, due to be held at the University of Illinois, USA were moved to Stoke Mandeville and New York when the planned Games could not go ahead. Stoke Mandeville organised the wheelchair sports part of the Games, with around 1,100 athletes from 42 Countries, at just four months notice.

The Games had been saved, but those involved realised a change was needed. In Seoul, Korea in 1988 the new structure for the Paralympic Games was forged when the Games were held using the same facilities as the Olympic Games. Today, the Paralympics are elite sport events for athletes with a disability. They emphasize the participants’ athletic achievements rather than their disability. The movement has grown dramatically since its first days, and in the Beijing Summer Paralympic Games in 2008 the number of participants had increased to 3,951 athletes from 146 countries.

The organisation founded by Guttmann in Britain to provide sporting opportunities for wheelchair sport is now called WheelPower and is based at Stoke Mandeville Stadium, the national centre for disability sport. WheelPower gives people with disabilities the chance to take part in competitive and recreational sport. With junior sports camps and games for young disabled people, inter spinal unit games for recently paralysed people and national and international events, WheelPower ensures that Guttmann’s vision continues to be a reality.  Sport can play a vital role in the personal development of young people with disabilities, giving confidence and self esteem. For recently disabled people, sport can aid rehabilitation and provide a positive force at a time when much can seem negative. Sport can also provide a fun way to stay fit and healthy and help make life easier after disability.

As we look forward to the Summer Paralympic Games in London in 2012, we have a unique opportunity to create a step change in attitudes to disability. Much has been achieved, in terms of media coverage, access to sports facilities and funding for sport, but much more is still to be done to give people with disabilities the same opportunities in sport as the rest of society. Everyone admires the achievements of our Paralympians, but few children with disabilities get the chance to participate in sport at school to the same level as their classmates. A true legacy of the Games would be the promise that all children with disabilities can access sport within school, whether in a mainstream or SEN setting. It is crucial that we train our PE teachers to deliver inclusive sport and to understand how to ensure that children with disabilities can achieve their sporting dreams.

There is also a need to ensure that the equipment required for children with disabilities to play sport is available. In recognition of this, WheelPower launched the Wheel Appeal in 2008 to provide “2012 new sports wheelchairs by 2012”. The Appeal should help positively change the lives of many young and newly disabled people and introduce them to sport.

Guttmann once said: “If I ever did one good thing in my medical career it was to introduce sport into the lives of disabled people”. Guttmann’s vision is as relevant today as it was in 1944. For young people with disabilities, sport can literally transform their life. Inspirational role models, like Paralympians Ade Adepitan MBE and Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson are proof of this. Both started their journey to Paralympic success through taking part in sport as juniors at Stoke Mandeville. Nowadays, the opportunities have improved, but London 2012 will rightly raise the sporting expectations and horizons of our young people with disabilities. Everyone involved in the provision of sport, at schools, clubs and national governing bodies, needs to be ready to deliver to meet these expectations.

Sport has the power to overcome disability and transcend the limits put on people with disabilities by society. Not every disabled person wants to be a Paralympian, but every child with a disability should not be limited by society, education, culture or opportunity to live the dream and achieve in sport on their terms.

Further information

Martin McElhatton is Chief Executive of WheelPower:

Article first published in SEN Magazine issue 44: January/February 2010.

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