Creating the Paralympics

Susan Frankel
Ludwig Guttman was a specialist doctor for people with spinal injuries. Working at a hospital in England, many of his patients were soldiers injured from war. Guttman believed sport gave his patients strong upper bodies and made them mentally strong. He made up a game called wheelchair polo. His patients also played wheelchair archery and wheelchair netball. In 1948 Guttman held a competition at the hospital at the same time as the London Olympic Games. These games for people with a disability would later grow to be a popular international competition. Today they are known as the Paralympics.
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Susan Frankel on 24/08/2012
A head shot of Ludwig Guttman.

Ludwig Guttman

In 1917 Ludwig Guttmann had his first meeting with paraplegia. The young German had just finished school and was a volunteer at a hospital. There he came across a strong, young coal miner with a fractured spine. At the time patients with such injuries often didn't live long because of medical complications and the types of treatment available.

Guttmann went on to become a neurosurgeon but in 1939 had to leave Germany in a hurry. He was sacked from his job as a neurosurgeon and lecturer because he was Jewish. Penniless, he left Nazi Germany for England with his family and knowledge.

A new chapter in treatment

In 1941 Guttmann was put in charge of a special, new centre for patients with spinal chord injuries. The new centre was created after a review had looked into how patients with spinal chord injuries were treated and rehabilitated.

Then in 1943, Guttmann was made director of the National Spinal Injuries Centre at the Ministry of Pensions Hospital at Stoke Mandeville in England. When it opened the following year, Guttmann introduced a whole new approach to the way spinal chord injury patients were treated. Exercise was designed to give patients strong upper bodies and make them mentally strong. His aim was to get patients back to being capable and respected members of society. Changing the public's attitudes to people with spinal cord injuries was a big challenge at the time.

Strong bodies, strong minds

Guttmann believed in the idea of sport playing a role in rehabilitation. He thought up a sport called wheelchair polo. He also introduced wheelchair archery and wheelchair netball for war veterans who had acquired a disability. These activities were successful at the centre and practiced regularly.

On the first day of the 1948 London Olympic Games, an archery contest with 16 patients took place on the grass outside the centre. This competition was to become known as the Stoke Mandeville Games. Guttmann decided he wanted his games to be on the same scale as the Olympic Games.

The Paralympics

In 1952 the Stoke Mandeville Games became an international sports event when a team of Dutch paraplegic war veterans participated in the competition.

Eight years later, an international games event for athletes with a disability was held for the first time when Rome hosted the Olympic Games in 1960. Around 350 male and female athletes with disabilities, from more than 20 countries, competed straight after the Olympic Games. All the athletes used wheelchairs.

In 1984 the International Olympic Committee officially gave the competition the name Paralympic Games. Today the Paralympics has 21 sports and thousands of competitors. The Paralympics have inspired generations and changed lives.

A legacy that grows

Guttmann directed the National Spinal Injuries Centre for 22 years and was knighted by the Queen in 1966. He died in 1980 and is recognised worldwide as a pioneer in the rehabilitation of spinal injury patients. He is credited for promoting the opening of many paraplegic centres worldwide, with centres named after him.

His vision was his treatment of disability, which radically changed lives. His enduring legacy is the ever increasing number of athletes with disabilities who take their abilities to the world.


The London 2012 Paralympics begin on 29 August.

Readers comments (2)

I feel people like Ludwig Guttmann don't get enough recognition. I admire people who don't settle for the status quo when things can be done better. Guttmann's efforts to improve treatment and rehabilitation for people with spinal injuries have improved the outlook for many whose lives would otherwise be severely limited. Thanks for the interesting read Susan.

I believe that the Paralympics are an event that, for many years, have been undervalued and overlooked. As part of my studies, my class and I have been studying the difficulties and differenced that people with disabilities have.

While reading this article, I found it very interesting learning about Ludwig Guttmann and his inspiration for the Paralympics. In schools children are often taught all about the Olympic Games - where and when they originated and their history - but the Paralympics are often overlooked.

I myself used to be a national level swimmer and in my life have swam with many people with all sorts of disabilities from a girl with Down Syndrome to another girl who only had the use of one of her arms. I saw them in the pool every morning and night, working just as hard if not harder than all the other athletes and were both competing at a national and international level. Despite this, whenever I wanted to watch their races on television, the coverage always cut off just before their races began. I was appalled every time this happened because these people worked so hard yet weren't given the time of day by the television networks.

I highly respect Ludwig Guttmann and everything that he has done for people with disabilities in sport. As a person completely free from disability, I cannot even begin to understand the difficulties that people face. But I also believe that when a person with a disability is able to participate in sport whether it is at an international level or at a club level, they feel extremely empowered and Ludwig Guttmann has played a huge part in this. He made the first steps in changing the public's attitude towards people with disabilities. He has created a format in which disabled athletes can shine and given young disabled children incredible role models.

Thankyou for such an interesting article.

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