The Paralympic Games in London are the biggest and most successful sports event for people with disabilities ever. The Games continue to redefine the way the public think about disability. Emerging from the ashes of Europe after World War II they've gone from strength to strength and with technology and medical science more advanced than we ever believed possible who knows where they might go?
What we now know as the 'Paralympic Games' is the legacy of one man's vision, that of Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, a German born Jewish neurologist who pioneered the use of sports in rehabilitation. Before his work, parapalegics and amputees were not rehabilitated and suffered a lower quality of life as a result. But then came World War II and every hospital in Europe was flooded with young men suffering horrific injuries. Guttmann was determined that these people should not be outcasts and still had much to offer society and he saw sports as key to rehabilitation and even transformation.
Ludwig Guttmann was born in Trost (now Tozcek, Poland) in 1899. He began working at 18 at the Accident Hospital in Konigshutte where he encountered his first patient with a spinal cord injury, a badly injured coalminer. Sadly the miner died but he made a lasting impression on Guttmann and when he went on to complete his medical studies in 1924 it was neurology that he chose to specialise in. During his studies he became involved in a Jewish fraternity, which provided information and awareness to fight anti-semitism, it also provided a programme of sport, exercise and physical development so that "nobody needed to be ashamed of being a Jew".
By 1933 Guttmann was considered the top neurosurgeon in Germany but with the rise of the Nazi's to power all Jews were banned from practicing medicine professionally and he was allowed to continue only at the Jewish hospital in Breslau, where he became director of the hospital. It was in 1938 that the Nazi's reigned violent attacks on the Jewish community of Kristalnacht and as traumatised Jews began to turn up to the hospital, Guttmann ordered that every Jew be admitted regardless of the seriousness of their injury. The next day the Gestapo arrived at the hospital and Guttmann had to justify their admittance on a case by case basis. Of the 64 patients admitted to the hospital, 60 were spared the fate of deportation to the concentration camps. But it was a defining moment for Guttmann who knew he had to get his family out of Germany.
The opportunity arose when Guttmann was given a visa by the Nazi's and ordered to Portugal to treat a friend of the Portuguese dictator Antonio de Oliviera Salazar. Guttmann was scheduled to return via London where with the help of the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics the Guttmann family stayed. They moved to Oxford where a community of Jewish academics was thriving.
Guttmann (right) welcomes the Queen to the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1969
Guttmann continued his pioneering work on spinal injury and rehabilitation and in 1943 he was asked to head the National Spinal Injuries Centre at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire. Guttmann was committed to the transformation of the injured into useful and happy members of society, but the long-held public perception of these people as 'invalids' was difficult to over come. One of his early patients wrote: "One of the most difficult tasks for a paraplegic is to cheer up his visitors!".
Guttmann had always believed that sport was key in rehabilitating spinal injuries and in 1948 he organised the first Stoke Mandeville Games for disabled people. The first event was wheelchair archery and there were 16 competitors, including two women. The idea of disabled people as athletes was ground-breaking and has been one of the main drivers in changing people's perceptions. He coined the term 'parallel games' as they run concurrently to the 1948 Olympic Games, this was the basis of the name the Paralympic Games that the event eventually became. Guttmann was loved by all who work alongside him and by his patients and he was known as 'Poppa' by all of them.
Stephen Hawking at the opening ceremony of the London Paralympic Games 2012
Today in London there are 4,200 athletes from 165 nations competing at the Paralympic Games. The opening ceremony was the most watched television event behind the Games' opening ceremony. Stephen Hawking, the world's most famous disabled person opened the Paralympics with a rare public appearance and said: "Look up at the stars, and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at."
Isn't this what the Paralympics are all about? Dr. Guttmann knew it and we think 'Poppa' would be proud.
By Hugo Mc Cafferty