Paralympic Games

Posted by admin | September 14, 2008 0

Sir Ludwig Guttmann

As the Olympics finished in Beijing the focus turned to what is probably the more remarkable part of the Olympics, the Paralympic Games. The world thrilled at the sportsmanship, sacrifice and frequently the agony of the athletes taking part in the Olympics. Imagine then what it must be like to be a disabled athlete, in a world where disabled people still encounter prejudice, exclusion and discrimination? The Paralympics are a particular source of pride in the village of Stoke Mandeville where the Celtic Sage resides for it is the local Stoke Mandeville Hospital and a remarkable surgeon Ludwig Guttmann who gave birth to the remarkable phenomenon of the Paralympics. And as the first organised “Stoke Mandeville Games” took place in conjunction with the 1948 Olympic Games hosted in a war shattered London then for the 2012 games in London the Paralympics will truly be coming home!

Stoke Mandeville Hospital

Stoke Mandeville Huts

For war has everything to do with the foundation of the Paralympics and with the remarkable Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Ludwig Guttmann. Sir Ludwig “Poppa” Guttmann (July 3, 1899 in Toszek (Poland) – March 18, 1980) was a German-born neurologist who founded the Paralympics and is considered one of the founding fathers of organized physical activities for the disabled. One of the leading pre-World War II neurologists in Germany, Guttmann worked at the Jewish Hospital in Breslau until 1939, when he was forced to flee to England.

In 1944, Guttmann was asked by the British government to found the National Spinal Injuries Centre in Stoke Mandeville near London, at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital. He was appointed the position of director at the Centre, a position he held until 1966. The hospital had been founded in 1830 as an out of town treatment centre during a cholera epidemic in Buckinghamshire and during the war the Canadian Army used land beside the hospital as billets before D-Day importing and building substantial wooden buildings which were subsequently used to treat some of the large number of servicemen, particularly RAF Aircrew who had severe spinal injuries and other disabilities. As director, he believed sport was a method of therapy, using it to help build physical strength and self-respect. By 1952, Guttmann’s Stoke Mandeville Games for the disabled had grown to over 130 international competitors, and it continued to grow, impressing Olympics officials and the international community. In 1956, Guttmann was awarded the Fearnley Cup, an award for outstanding contribution to the Olympic ideal. Starting in 1960 in Rome and continuing to today, the Paralympic Games are held after the Olympic Games, often in the same city. In 1960 Guttmann also founded the British Sports Association of the Disabled. Guttmann received Great Britain’s OBE and CBE and was honoured worldwide.

Guttmann Centre

The original Games couldn’t have been more different from the international event they have become today. On July 29th, 1948, 16 paralysed ex-serviceman gathered on the lawn of Stoke Mandeville Hospital to take part in the first ever Stoke Mandeville Games. In a decision, that was to prove very significant, they were held to coincide with the opening of the Olympic Games in London. The beginning of the sports movement for the disabled had begun. The games were held again at the same location in 1952, and Dutch veterans took part alongside the British, making it the first international competition of its kind. These Stoke Mandeville Games have been described as the precursors of the Paralympic Games. The Paralympics were subsequently formalised as a quadrennial event tied to the Olympic Games, and the first official Paralympic Games, no longer open solely to war veterans, were held in Rome in 1960. At the Toronto 1976 Games other groups of athletes with different disabilities were also included.

Stoke Mandeville Games 1948

Dr Ludwig Guttmann, seen by many as the founding father of the Paralympic movement, passionately believed that his patients, with the right help and support, could lead fulfilling lives.

“Paraplegia is not the end of the way. It is the beginning of a new life,” he once said. And sport played a very important role in achieving that goal – both physically and psychologically.

The unit had originally been created to treat severely injured World War Two servicemen. Early sports included darts, billiards and skittles. Team sports soon followed such as polo and basketball. As Dr Guttmann later recalled: “At first I used sporting activity as a kind of recreation but I found very soon that it can play a very important part as a complementary to the usual methods of physiotherapy.” He also found that sport had a very positive psychological effect, “Nothing can produce more activity of mind, apart from work and employment, but sport.”

The Paralympic Games are a multi-sport event for athletes with physical, mental, and sensorial disabilities. This includes athletes with mobility disabilities, amputations, blindness, and cerebral palsy. The Paralympic Games are held every four years, following the Olympic Games, and are governed by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). The Paralympic Games are sometimes confused with the Special Olympics World Games, which are only for people with intellectual disabilities. Although the name was originally coined as a portmanteau combining “paraplegic” (due to its origins as games for people with spinal injuries) and “Olympic”, the inclusion of other disability groups meant that this was no longer considered appropriate. The present formal explanation for the name is therefore that it refers to a competition held in parallel with the Olympic Games.

Stoke Mandeville Stadium has provided wheelchair athletes facilities and support for their sporting aspirations since it was built in 1969. The movement has grown massively from its start in 1948 and now encompasses the development of thousands of athletes worldwide. Stoke Mandeville Stadium is the birthplace of the Paralympic Games and the is the British National Centre for Wheelchair Sport. The Stadium provides high quality, fully accessible training facilities for leading sportsmen and women.

Stoke Mandeville Pool

Sports Hall

Today, 60 years after the first games were held on the lawn of the neighbouring hospital, stands Stoke Mandeville stadium, the national centre for disability sport. Its facilities include a pool, running track and field, tennis courts and bowls centre. Some of Britain’s most famous athletes with disabilities have benefited from its facilities. Among them are Paralympic gold medallists, Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, David Weir, and Lloyd Upsdell. However, the centre remains very much a grass roots organization aimed at making sport accessible to anyone, whatever their level. Martin McElhatton, the chief executive of WheelPower, which owns the stadium is passionate advocate of the importance of sport.

He says: “One of the most important things for our young disabled people is that they have opportunities to get into sport. They often don’t get to hear about the opportunities that are available to them, through organisations like WheelPower in terms of sport, particularly children in mainstream education.”

Olympic Lodge

Within sight of the main Stoke Mandeville Hospital the Guttmann Centre provides impressive facilities for disabled athletes including a 50 room Olympic Lodge where even the ramped fire escapes are disabled friendly and an all weather running track. Also seen here is the Olympic Flame from the 1984 Paralympics, which were shared with Stoke Mandeville and Los Angeles.

The medical work began by Dr. Guttmann with servicemen crippled in war time is continued at The National Spinal Injuries Centre (NSIC) at Stoke Mandeville. This is a 110-bed dedicated spinal injuries centre comprising 20 acute, 24 readmission, 60 rehabilitation and 6 paediatric beds. The NSIC provides comprehensive care to adult patients with acute spinal cord injury and the lifelong complications of cord injury and offers rehabilitation to children with spinal cord injury in a dedicated paediatric unit.

Sir Ludwig “Poppa” Guttmann, founder of the Paralympics,
at Stoke Mandeville Stadium with an admirer


It is worth recalling that before Dr. Guttmann set up his rehabilitation most such patients died of complications within one year of injury. The experience gained in treating and preventing complications, together with an increase in injuries caused by road traffic accidents, led to a rapid expansion of the Centre from an initial 26 beds to 190 beds in the main part of the hospital.

National Spinal Injuries Centre
Sir Jimmy Savile

Severe weather conditions in Buckinghamshire in 1980 caused the ceiling in five of the spinal wards in the wooden huts to collapse which resulted in rapid flooding and falling debris. It was suggested that the Centre would have to close as the Area Health Authority did not have any funds to pay for all the work required to bring the wards back into use. The implications of this would have been disastrous as patients would have had to be treated in local District Hospitals where the expertise and knowledge of the treatment and rehabilitation of paraplegia and tetraplegia were not available. It was at this point that Sir Jimmy Savile, a British TV and Music personality, then working as a volunteer porter at the hospital, set about organising the campaign to raise the necessary funds for a purpose built replacement spinal cord injuries centre. The appeal was launched in January 1980 with an initial donation of £150,000. The public responded in a way never seen before and, within three years, over ten million pounds had been raised to build and equip the new National Spinal Injuries Centre, which was officially opened in 1983. Sir James continues to take an active interest in the spinal Centre which is the leading specialist facility in the world. Jimmy has a flat in the grounds and you sometimes catch sight of his startling blond hair with a body attached going for a walk in the village.

Stoke Mandeville Station
Thatched Cottage Stoke Mandeville

Stoke Mandeville Hospital is in fact on the “Stoke Road” halfway between Aylesbury and Stoke Mandeville. The village today is largely a commuter town with a railway station for London, three pubs and numerous thatched cottage. Like all the fertile Vale of Aylesbury it is overlooked by the Chiltern Hills and was formerly an important market gardening centre. Indeed Castle Caldwell is built on old plum and greengage orchards. The first part of the name Stoke Mandeville derives from the old English word stoc, and means “outlying farmstead or hamlet”. The second part, “Mandeville”, derives from the Norman family of that name which held the manor in the 13th century. The suffix Mandeville was first recorded in 1284 when the manor was listed as being in the hands of the powerful Norman de Mandeville family. Stoke Mandeville Station serves the village of Stoke Mandeville in Buckinghamshire. The station lies on the London Marylebone-Aylesbury line and is served by Chiltern Railways trains. It is situated between Wendover and Aylesbury stations. The station first opened on 1 September 1892, and was served by both the London Underground Metropolitan Line and the Great Central Railway.

Stoke Mandeville has a long tradition of dedicated staff who go beyond the call of duty to make the station a pleasant place for passengers. The current station master is Alex Mitchell who has several times won the “Station of the Year” competition. The lawn at the station front features several sculptures including a statue of Bernie, the former Station Master. It has excellent loos, a waiting room, ticket office, bike store and a coffee shop / newsagent. Buckinghamshire still has much evidence of Celtic village and land layout. Traditional houses were of wychert (flint / straw / earth) construction with characteristic “dog ear” thatched roofs which oversailed by at least two feet to keep running water off the walls. There are still many wychert and thatch buildings as well as later wood frame and infill thatched cottages throughout Bucks and in Stoke Mandeville village.

Olympic Flame Stoke Mandeville

London is looking forward to hosting the Olympics and Paralympics in 2012 and showing the world the diversity, tolerance and freedom which makes London such a great world city. Whilst democracies are not as good as dictatorships at mass choreography the London Olympics will reflect the energy and confidence which makes London such an iconic city. And in embracing the Paralympic athletes and their families London will have an opportunity to show that diversity and inclusion are not just slogans or aspirations but part of the way we do things here. The legacy of Dr Guttmann is clearly still very much at the heart of the movement he helped found in Stoke Mandeville 60 years ago. Guttmann’s work at Stoke Mandeville inspired this great addition to the Olympic ideal and the Guttmann centre continues this work today. And in Stoke Mandeville in 2012 we might feel a little extra pride that the amazing feat of human effort in the face of adversity known as the Paralympic Games are “coming home”.

Archery at the 1948 Stoke Mandeville Paralympics



Comments are closed.