Who do you think came up with the idea for the Paralympics? Was it someone who loved playing sport, or an athlete who was injured in some way? Maybe it was a coach with a disability. All these answers are wrong. The man who organised the sporting events which eventually became the Paralympic Games was a doctor; his name was Prof. Sir Ludwig Guttmann.
Born in Germany in 1899, Ludwig was always interested in medicine. In his teens he worked as a volunteer in a hospital for injured miners. One of his first patients was a man who had a spinal cord injury. The doctors didn’t have much time for him and the man soon died. Ludwig remembered him for the rest of his life. He graduated from medical school and became a doctor when he was 25 years old.
Guttmann enjoyed a successful career for the next few years and became the director of the neurosurgical department of the Breslau Jewish hospital. Because Guttmann and his family were Jews, life in Germany was becoming very difficult for them. The Nazi party did not allow most hospitals to treat Jewish people or even work as doctors. As Guttmann was the director of the hospital, he could help people. However, in 1938 he realised that life had become too dangerous and he decided to move to the UK with his family.
A new approach
In the UK, Guttmann continued his research into the best way to treat people with spinal cord injuries. He wasn’t only interested in treating patients; he was also interested in how to rehabilitate them - to help them have a normal, useful life again.
He presented his findings from his research to the Medical Council of England and in 1943 he became the director of Stoke Mandeville Hospital. The Second World War was going on and there were a lot of soldiers injured in the fighting. Often they had lost the use of their legs and they needed treatment and help. At that time people thought that if someone was disabled, they couldn’t really live a normal, useful life. One of the results was that disabled soldiers were often depressed and angry. Guttmann used his new methods to treat these men. He looked after their injuries but he also tried to give them emotional strength. He wanted to rehabilitate his patients.
The founding of the modern Paralympics
From his younger days, Guttmann knew that taking part in sport helps a person’s body as well as their mind. He began to use sport as a therapy to help his patients. He wanted to give them back their self-respect and dignity and he encouraged his patients to take part in sports.
In 1948 the hospital held a sporting event called ‘The International Wheelchair Games’. By 1952 the event began to get bigger with disabled athletes from other countries attending. By 1960 the games were called the International Stoke Mandeville Games and they were held in Rome alongside the official Summer Olympics. The next two events, in 1964 in Tokyo and 1968 in Tel Aviv, Israel were even bigger. By this time there were 750 athletes from 29 different countries. Guttmann himself died in 1980, even before the games were called ‘Paralympics’, but there is no doubt that he is the founder and father of the Paralympic Games.
In 2012, the Paralympics return to the UK and Stoke Mandeville Hospital will be used as a training centre. In recognition of Guttman’s life and work, there will also be a bronze statue of him standing outside the National Spinal Injuries Centre. Today, it is normal for disabled people take part in sports but during Ludwig Guttmann’s lifetime, disabled people didn’t have the same chances that they do now. It’s thanks to his hard work that we are all able to enjoy The Paralympics.