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A new way for those injured in the Second World War

Aerial view of Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Photo: Shutterstock
For at least 100 years, sport has held competitions between athletes with some sort of physical disability. In 1888, Berlin (Germany) already had a club that promoted competitions amongst the hearing impaired. However, it was only after the Second World War (1939-1945) that competitions between those who would be called Paralympic athletes in the future, would gain strength at the global level. The main purpose was to include a great number of injured war veterans in the event.

In 1944, the British government requested that doctor Ludwig Guttmann open a spinal injury expert centre. The centre was housed at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire, where rehabilitation through sport evolved from a recreational to a competitive activity.

On 29 July 1948, at the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games, Guttmann organised the first wheelchair competition, which he called the Stoke Mandeville Games. Sixteen former military personnel applied to take part, men and women, who had suffered some sort of injury. They competed in an archery tournament. In 1952, Dutch military personnel up took to the movement and the Stoke Mandeville Games became an international event.

First edition of the Paralympic Games in Rome, 1960. Photo: International Paralympic Committee (IPC)
The first Games to use the term Paralympics were held in Rome (Italy) in 1960, bringing together 400 competitors from 23 countries. Since then, they have been held every four years. The Winter Paralympic Games were held for the first time in 1976, in Örnsköldsvik in Sweden.

Also in 1960, the World Federation of Ex-servicemen, an International Working Group on Sport for the Disabled was set up to study problems in sport for people suffering from some sort of impairment. It resulted in the creation of the International Sport Organisation for the Disabled (ISOD) in 1964. The organisation started to offer opportunities for disabled athletes - with sight impairment, amputees, people with cerebral palsy and paraplegics – who could not take part in the Stoke Mandeville Games, which already had their own International Federation (ISMGF).

At the start, 16 countries were affiliated to ISOD and the organisation pushed very hard to include blind and amputee athletes in the 1976 Paralympics in Toronto, as well as athletes with cerebral palsy at the 1980 Games, in Arnhem in the Netherlands. ISOD's goal was to embrace all impairments in the future and to act as a coordinating committee of the Paralympic Games.

Other disability-oriented organisations were founded, like the Cerebral Palsy International Sports and Recreation Association (CPISRA) in 1978 and the International Blind Sports Federation (IBSA), in 1980.

The four organisations ended up setting up the International Co-coordinating Committee Sports for the Disabled in the World (ICC) in 1982, as they saw the need for working together for the Paralympic Games.

With time, member states started to demand more national and continental representation on behalf of ICC. On 22 September 1989, the International Paralympic Committee was founded, as a non-profit organisation in Dusseldorf (Germany) to act as the governing body of the global Paralympic movement.

Since the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, and the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville in France, the Paralympics are held in the same host cities and competition venues as the Olympics.

Guttmann: the father of parasports


Ludwig Guttmann was the pioneer of the Paralympic movement. Photo: International Paralympic Committee (IPC)
The eldest in an orthodox Jewish family from Tost (town currently in Poland), Ludwig Guttmann was born in 1899. At the age of 18 he became a volunteer nurse at an Accident Hospital, after witnessing an accident that marked him. It was at this hospital that he got interested in the case of a patient that came in with spinal cord injury, paralysed from the waist down. The patient ended up dying weeks later from a urinary infection that turned into sepsis.

At the age of 19 in 1918, Guttmann started studying medicine at the University of Breslau, Wroclaw today in Poland, where he spent five years. He specialised in neurology and neurosurgery. In the 1930s, he was the director of the hospital in his town and known for his work. That is, until Adolf Hitler became Chancellor in 1933. Not being able to work freely because of the limits imposed on the Jewish, Guttmann accepted the invitation of the British government and moved to Oxford with his family in 1939.

After the start of the Second World War in 1939, the British government decided to prepare themselves for a bigger number of soldiers, who would certainly come home with serious injuries. For the injured, a hospital ward specialised in spinal cord injuries was set up to be on constant standby.

In September 1943, Guttmann was invited to direct the ward, located at Stoke Mandeville, where he would develop treatment methods for paraplegia cases. The unit would become the National Spinal Injuries Centre at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital.
According to an article by cardiologist Lauro Arruda, published on the website of Hospital do Coração (Heart Expert Hospital) in São Paulo, Guttmann studied and helped people who were stuck on beds or wheelchairs. Indeed, these patients had reached an 18% mortality rate due to infections, depression and pressure sores. It was when in addition to start using physiotherapy for treatment, Guttmann began using sport to motivate these patients. They started by throwing a ball around to move their upper limbs. The initiative led to an increase of patients' physical resistance and self-esteem.

Using methods implemented by Guttmann, a First World War veteran (1914-1918), who had spent 26 years in bed, started walking using canes in six months. In addition to physical exercise, these methods developed new wheelchair models.

At the 1948 Olympic Games in London, the doctor organised wheelchair archery and basketball competitions for his disabled 16 athletes (14 men and 2 women). In 1952, the Stoke Mandeville Games organised by Guttmann were already already considered an international event, with over 130 athletes taking part.

In 1960, the competition started by Guttmann was held in Rome Italy, under the name of Paralympic Games. There were 400 athletes from 23 countries, competing in eight sports, from which, six continue to be in the Paralympic programme until today (table tennis, archery, basketball, swimming, fencing and athletics).

Guttmann also founded the English Federation of Disability Sport in 1961, year when he was also appointed as the chair of the International Medical Society of Paraplegia (currently the International Spinal Cord Society).

The Guttmann Institute was founded in his honour in Barcelona Spain, in 1965. It was the first hospital specialised in neurorehabilitation of patients with spinal cord and brain injuries.

Ludwig Guttmann died of a myocardial infarction in 1989. At the Paralympic Games in London 2012, where over 4,200 athletes took part in the competition, Eva Guttmann was appointed as the mayor of the Paralympic Village, in honour of her father.

Sources: International Paralympic Committee website, British Paralympic Committee website,  and article by cardiologist Lauro Arruda