Right after the Nazis took power in 1933, Ludwig Guttman, one of the top neurosurgeons in Germany, was fired from his position at a public hospital, because he was Jewish. In 1939, he and his family fled to England, when they realized their lives were in danger.
Guttman convinced the British government to start a new center for veterans with spinal injuries, and he became the first director of the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Guttman wanted to reintegrate his patients into society. Physical rehabilitation was only the first phase of his treatment. One of his patients wrote, “One of the most difficult tasks for a paraplegic is to cheer up his visitors!”
Guttman believed in athletic activity, both to improve a patient’s physical health and to aid in integration into the community, by increasing self-respect and competitive spirit. Some of his paraplegic patients would roll their wheelchairs along the hospital halls and hit objects with sticks. Guttman developed team sports, which became the first Stoke Mandeville Games, when 16 ex-servicemen and -women competed in archery on the day that the 1948 Olympics opened in London. In 1952, a team of Dutch war veterans joined in, creating the first international games for the disabled, with 130 participants.
In 1958, Guttman and the Director of the Spinal Center in Rome, Antonia Maglio, started preparations for the 9th Annual International Stoke Mandeville Games to be held in Rome in 1960. Only athletes with spinal cord injuries competed. The competition took place six days after the Rome Olympic Games, and besides archery included swimming, wheelchair basketball and fencing, and track and field.
The Rome Games were a tremendous step for all athletes with physical impairments. Later that year, an International Working Group on Sport for the Disabled was created to consider sports for other kinds of disabilities: the blind, amputees, and persons with cerebral palsy. In 1961, Guttman founded the British Sports Association for the Disabled, and national organizations began to proliferate. Acceptance for the legitimacy of international games for the disabled grew, and eventually in 1988 in Seoul the word Paralympic came into official use.
The Games have expanded to include 20 different sports and over 4000 participants from nearly every nation in the world. In 1976 in Toronto, different disabilities were included for the first time, expanding the games beyond athletes in wheelchairs. American athletes won the most medals at each meeting until Sydney in 2000. The Chinese made their first significant appearance then, and in the next meeting in Atlanta in 2004 won the most medals, which they have done each time since. In London in 2012, volleyball, cycling, and judo were added. In Rio, athletes will compete for the first time in sailing and triathlon.
Many types of disabilities from birth, disease or accident can distort the normal functioning of the human body: missing limbs, limited range of motion of joints, decreased muscle power, visual or intellectual impairment. The Paralympics movement has developed a complex system of classifications to insure “fair and equal competition”. In order to include as many athletes as possible, there are multiple versions of the same event. In the 100-meter dash, 15 gold medals can be won by women in different classes depending on degree of visual impairment, or whether they are missing legs or arms.
The Rio triathlon exemplifies the complexities of creating inclusivity among athletes with different disabilities. Blind athletes can compete with a guide accompanying them in all phases. Paraplegics use wheelchairs for the run and handcycles instead of bicycles. Race bikes with adaptations are used by those with partial use of their legs. Men and women competed for three gold medals in triathlon in Rio, including 10 blind women in class PT5, each accompanied by a guide.
Looking for inspiration from athletic success? Watch a one-legged high jumper from China clear the bar at 6' 5" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FoUNuTGFzg. That’s not a world record, though, because the Canadian Arnie Boldt, who lost a leg in a grain augur accident at age 3, jumped 6' 8" outdoors and 6'10" indoors in 1981. Or watch the women’s 100-meter final from London in 2012, when 9 runners with 7 full legs among them competed, and Martina Caironi set a new world record of 15.87 seconds.
Ellen Keane from Ireland used to wear long sleeves to cover up the fact that she was born without a left arm. Now she proudly dons a swimsuit to compete in the 200-meter individual medley, in which she won a bronze medal at the 2015 International Paralympic Committee World Swimming Championships in Glasgow. She says, “Sports taught me to accept my handicap. I now find it okay to have only one arm. I wouldn’t have it any different.”
Dr. Guttman’s vision has been realized on a world scale. The athletic performances of the thousands of Paralympic athletes in Rio, far exceeding what most “normal” athletes could accomplish, make the word handicapped seem inappropriate. None of them can earn a living from professional sports. They have achieved much more: pride in what their bodies can do, rather than shame for what they can’t.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 13, 2016