In 1948, the neurologist, Sir Ludwig Guttman organised a sporting competition at Mendeville Hospital in Stoke, England, for injured veterans of World War II. Over 60 years later, the Paralympic Games returns to the country of its birth and it promises to be the biggest and best one yet.
This year, the London 2012 Paralympic Games will be the largest gathering of disabled sports people on the planet. Around 4,200 competitors, representing 165 countries will compete, making it the biggest Paralympic Games to date.
The Games will take place from 29 August until the 9 September. The opening ceremony will be an impressive affair, with over 3,000 volunteers putting on a stunning show. The closing ceremony will be no less dazzling. Coldplay will be performing a live, one off concert at the Olympic Stadium to be broadcast to around 750 million people. It is a far cry from the humble beginnings of a disability sports event which involved just 16 disabled sportsmen!
Ludwig Guttman was born in 1899 in Germany, but fled from the Nazis, settling in the UK in 1939. In 1943, he became head of the NSIC (the National Spinal Injury Centre) at Stoke Mendeville Hospital, which started out as a treatment centre for World War II servicemen.
It was here that he developed the revolutionary method of using sport as part of the war veterans’ disability rehabilitation programme. Back then, the activities included wheelchair polo, wheelchair archery and wheelchair basketball. It was Ludwig’s idea to organise ‘The Stoke Mendeville Games for Wheelchair Athletes’ to coincide with the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games of 1948.
It proved so successful that 4 years later, the British competitors were joined by disabled athletes from the Netherlands. But it was in 1960 that the first official Paralympic Games were staged in Rome.
The 1960 Paralympic Games saw an impressive 400 disabled athletes compete from 23 countries in 8 sports. However, it was still seen as very much an appendage to the main Olympic Games, taking part at separate venues with far fewer spectators. Over the years, which followed, the Paralympic Games continued to flourish, but it was still not recognised as a parallel event to the Olympic Games. Indeed, in some years the Paralympic and Olympic Games were hosted in different countries. It was only in 1988 in Korea, that the Paralympic Games took place at the same stadia and in the same city as the Olympics.
Since then, the event has grown in popularity and stature, attracting disabled participants from the far corners of the world. This year, a staggering one million tickets went on sale in May. Moreover, 16 further countries will be making their Paralympic debut in 2012, including Brunei, Cameroon and North Korea.
The significance of the Paralymic Games should never be underestimated. Not only does it give disabled athletes the chance to compete at an international level, but it also serves as a powerful tool to raise disability awareness and demonstrate to the world at large, what the disabled community is truly capable of.
It is amazing to think one man’s revolutionary idea and 16 disabled athletes led to a global event boasting over 4,000 competitors from 165 nations. And it is fitting that, after so long, a now well established and highly entertaining Paralympic Games should finally return to the country where it all began.