The Games Come Home: Tracing the Paralympics’ British Roots

How an archery tournament for disabled World War II veterans in the British town of Stoke Mandeville grew into the second-largest sporting event on earth

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Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

Torchbearers exchange the Paralympic flame outside Stoke Mandeville Spinal Unit in Stoke Mandeville, England, Aug. 28, 2012. The Stoke Mandeville Spinal Unit was the birthplace of what is now the Paralympic Games.

On a hot July day in 1948, hundreds of athletes from around the world filled London’s Wembley Stadium for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. Forty-five miles away in the village of Stoke Mandeville, sixteen men and women in wheelchairs gathered on a hospital lawn to compete in an archery competition. The two teams, comprised mostly of paraplegic war veterans, shot three rounds; the team from the Star and Garter Home for Injured War Veterans took the prize.

This humble event, organized by a neurosurgeon named Dr. Ludwig Guttmann to lift his patients’ spirits, marked the beginning of the Paralympic movement. Sixty-four years later, the Paralympics has become the second largest sporting competition in the world behind the Olympics, drawing 4,200 athletes from 147 nations to compete in London for the 2012 Games.

Given Stoke Mandeville’s historical importance in the birth of the Paralympics, Olympic planners made clear the village would play a part in the London 2012 celebrations (one of this year’s Olympic mascots, a cuddly blue and grey cyclops, is even named after the town). But as the Summer Games drew closer, local officials began to worry about how the village’s Paralympic history would be presented. New hospital buildings now sit on the lawn where those first competitors gathered in 1948, and all that is left of Guttmann’s spinal unit are a few rusty white dormitory huts that now store sporting equipment. “We realized that people might come to Stoke Mandeville and try and see where it started,” says Ruth Page, project manager of the Mandeville Legacy, a government-funded project to chart the history of the Paralympics. “The thing is, there’s really nothing here.”

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While there wasn’t any money to create a Paralympic museum at Stoke Mandeville, funding was available to create an exhibition at the town’s stadium for interested visitors. This meant retrieving dusty jumbled old photographs and historical papers stored in the archives of three local charities. “They really had no idea what they held,” says Page, who worked with Buckinghamshire Country Council senior archivist Laura Cotton to sift through the materials.

The collection, enlivened by stories and artifacts collected from past Paralympians, forms the basis of ‘Path to the Paralympic Games’ at the Stoke Mandeville Stadium, on show until Sept. 16. It’s a history of how one man’s vision and determination continues to change lives long after his death. Guttmann, whom his patients simply called “Poppa,” was a Jewish doctor who fled Nazi Germany and emigrated to Oxford on the eve of World War Two. He was asked by the British government to lead the National Spinal Injury Centre in Stoke Mandeville, which opened in 1944 and focused on treating the horrific injuries suffered by Britain’s young men during the war. At the time, not many doctors were eager to care for paraplegic young vets. “When you speak to some of the old nurses, nobody wanted to work on Spinal Unit,” says Cotton. “It was a death sentence. Young men just came and died, slowly and horribly.” But Guttmann agreed, and set about transforming not only the way paralysis was treated, but instilling hope in his patients.

Guttmann encouraged members of the ward to keep busy by woodworking, mending watches and putting on plays and pantomimes. But he saw sport as the most rewarding of all activities for those confined to a wheelchair. As early as 1949, he already had ambitions to expand the Stoke Mandeville Games, as they were then called, into an international sporting competition on a par with the Olympics.

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The exhibition traces the development of the games from their informal beginnings in the ’40s to their international expansion in subsequent decades. Early photos show archers in wheelchairs sitting proudly in front of their targets and Guttmann smiling and clutching the hands of Canadian athletes as they arrived at Heathrow Airport in 1954. By the end of the 1950s, participants were coming in from all five continents and the International Olympic Committee has offered its first hints of qualified support.

The exhibit’s snippets from archival material reveal the charm and goodwill of the early Games. At the 1960 Games in Rome, the accommodations were not wheelchair friendly, and competitors had to be hoisted up and down the stairs by Italian volunteers. Not all the male athletes enjoyed this, but some of the ladies did. “We girls thought it was rather nice when you were tilted back in your chair, and you met a pair of beautiful brown eyes and a voice saying ‘buongiorno.’” wrote participant Janet Laughton in a newsletter produced for the Games. At Tokyo in 1964, the winner of the 60m wheelchair dash was presented with a geisha figurine clad in a silk kimono. British athletes with disabilities also received a warm welcome home – an athlete’s souvenir guide to No. 10 Downing Street from a 1964 reception is signed by several dignitaries including the Prime Minister himself, Harold Wilson.

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Perhaps most evocative, however, are the pieces of clothing and sporting equipment used by the athletes themselves. There is a hunter green blazer and matching cap — a uniform British athletes recycled for each Games during the 1960s. “They said they were really horrible to wear, because they were of really itchy material,” says Cotton. Nearby hangs a battered red table tennis paddle used by Tommy Taylor, who came to Stoke Mandeville to be treated by Dr. Guttmann after an accident in 1956. Despite being severely paralyzed, Taylor went on to win 16 medals across five sports, ten of them gold. His speciality was table tennis, however, and his paddle still shows how he adapted to his use: gauze padding covered the handle with a large rubber band to attach it to his hand.

Collecting living Paralympians’ stories is also one of the priorities of the Mandeville Legacy project. None of the participants in the first 1948 Games are alive, but patients of Dr. Guttmann’s from the 1950s who went on to compete in the Paralympics still survive. “It’s important for us to capture different people’s voices and memories,” says Cotton, “because they are disappearing all the time.”

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