The origins of the Paralympics

The Paralympics have kicked off this week in fine style, with Para-cyclist Dame Sarah Storey winning her 12th gold medal in the velodrome on Thursday the 8th of September, making her Britain’s most successful female Paralympian of all time. The GB team has won five golds and 11 medals thus far, so the country looks set to repeat its Olympics success story. The first ever Paralympics were held in Rome in 1960… but did you know that the inspiration for the games came from a spinal injury hospital, here in the UK, shortly after World War Two?

Team GB at the 2012 Paralympic Opening Ceremony, Wikimedia Commons

After both World Wars, returned servicemen faced many difficulties in re-integrating with the workforce. Those who had suffered spinal injuries struggled to be accepted by their mates, some of whom didn’t want the reminder of the horrors that they themselves had seen in war, while others resented the fact that the government, keen to show that it was doing something to help the nation’s wounded heroes, often tried to shoehorn such men into jobs for which they were simply not suited.

‘Broken Men’ by Fiona Reid mentions an occasion when the Ex-Services Welfare Society (ESWS) tried to hire a cook through the Disabled Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Association, but found him to be so incompetent that they resolved never to employ anyone through the organisation again. This seems like terrible mismanagement by the DSSA; after all, if you can’t cook, you can’t cook, disabled or otherwise. It seems a shame that other veterans may have missed out on employment as a result of this well-meaning but misguided attempt to assist the man in question. The book also claims that Ralph Millbourn, chairman of the ESWS, attempted to take on some wounded veterans in his own factory but, possibly because they couldn’t do their full share of the work, was eventually forced to admit, “We cannot take in a lot of cripples – the men won’t have it.”

Medical officers and nurses conferring on cases in a British hospital carrier ship, WW2, Forces War Records Archive

So, finding door after door closed to them, even by those initially keen to offer assistance, it is not surprising that many disabled Great War veterans came to believe that they were no longer good for anything. The majority, whether from physical complications or because they had given up, died within a year of being injured. When the Second World War ended, once again many disabled men, including those who had been paralysed from the waist down in the course of the fighting, struggled to fit back into society. This time, though, a lucky few were able to gain a sense of worth through the efforts of a Jewish German refugee, Dr Ludwig Guttman, head of the spinal injuries unit at the Ministry of Pensions Hospital at Stoke Mandeville, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. Dr Guttmann of course worked hard to treat the physical ailments of patients, but, as someone who himself had been forced to leave his former life behind, realised that a sense of self-worth, ability and fitness was key to post-war rehabilitation. From 1943, then, games became part of his programme at the hospital.

According to, his first effort saw physiotherapists in the facility taking on patients in a sport that was a mixture between polo and hockey, played in wheelchairs on the ward. A more formal sports programme soon developed, with the doctor encouraging patients to make the most of whatever capabilities they had. Lucy Gannon, writer of the 2012 BBC2 programme ‘The Best of Men’ about Guttmann’s work (, claims that a former patient told of a new admission to the ward who had broken his back the day before. The doctor, on approaching the man’s bed, enquired whether he swam. Being given an affirmative, he said, "I’ll see you at the pool at 2 o’clock this afternoon.”

Ludwig Guttmann, Wikimedia Commons

By 1948, Guttmann was keen to expand the scope of his programme, and reached out to another rehabilitation facility. On the 29th of July he organised an archery competition, timed to tie in with the opening ceremony of the Olympics, in which eight paraplegic men and women from Stoke Mandeville took on a team of patients from a special paraplegic ward at the Star and Garter Home for Injured War Veterans at Richmond, in Surrey. The competition, which, as the Mandeville Legacy website explains, saw the two sides competing to win a Challenge Shield, was such a success that Guttmann decided to make it an annual thing and expand the repertoire to include such sports as table tennis and wheelchair netball. The very next year saw six teams competing for the shield.

The Paralympics proper did not begin for another 12 years, but Guttmann’s competition is widely recognised to have provided the inspiration for their creation. Professor Guttman received a knighthood for his outstanding contribution to the rehabilitation of paraplegics in general, and the creation of the Paralympics in particular. He showed many a paraplegic veteran that they were worthwhile and capable of achieving great things. The 1960 games saw 400 athletes from 23 countries compete in 13 different sports, and the competition has grown massively in both size and popularity since then. This year 4,342 athletes from 159 countries will take part in 22 sports, all thanks to the efforts of one man determined to make a difference and a handful of paraplegic veterans equally determined not to give up, whatever obstacles were thrown in their way.

Dame Sarah Storey, Britain’s most successful female Paralympian, Wikimedia Commons
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