Sports for athletes with an impairment have existed for more than 100 years. On 29 July 1948, the first Olympic Games were organized in London after World War II. And on the same day, 35 miles away somewhere in the northwest of London, a very different competition was also introduced to the people with disabilities.
The first sports club for deaf people was already in existence in 1888 in Berlin. But after World War II in 1944, at the request of the British Government, Dr Ludwig Guttmann opened a spinal injuries centre at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Great Britain to treat the war veterans and civilians who were injured during wartime. Dr Guttmann who was the head of spinal injury in the Stoke Mandeville Hospital had soon realized that continuous bed rest, the standard practice in spinal injury cases, was hurting his patients physically and mentally.
He experimented with moving the patients, gently turning them over regularly, and was encouraged by the results. He soon began programs to strengthen the patients with simple games of ball, then wheelchair polo and basketball, darts, and archery. The Patients lived, thrived, and were enjoying the fact that they’re at least moving.
On 29 July 1948, Dr Guttmann had organized the first competition for people with an impairment and named it Stoke Mandeville Games. The game featured 16 people – 14 men and 2 women who were competing in one sport, archery. It was one of the first milestones in Paralympic history. Later in 1952, Dutch ex-servicemen had also joined the great cause initiated by Dr Guttmann and soon the International Stoke Mandeville Games were founded.
Two years later, the Stoke-Mandeville competition had expanded to sixty competitors, and javelin throwing was included. By 1954, fourteen nations were represented at Stoke-Mandeville, with athletes from as far away as Australia, Egypt, Pakistan, and Portugal.
And in 1960, 400 athletes with disabilities, from 23 countries, gathered at the Olympic Stadium in Rome, just days after the Olympics had concluded. They competed in archery, basketball, swimming, fencing, javelin, shot put, club throwing, snooker, swimming, table tennis, and the pentathlon.
The size and diversity of the Paralympic Games have increased greatly over the years. With time the Paralympics has split into Winter and Summer Games, which alternately occur every two years. The Paralympics in 1960 hosted 400 athletes from 23 countries participating in eight sports. Just over 50 years later, at the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London, more than 4,200 athletes representing 164 countries participated in 20 sports.
The first Summer Games of the modern Paralympic era were held in Seoul, South Korea, in 1988. More than 100,000 people attended the Opening Ceremonies, which featured skydivers, thousands of children, and 700 wheelchair dancers. Over 950 world records were set, with Trischa Zorn of the US winning 12 Gold medals in swimming and setting 9 world records.
The first Winter Games took place in 1976 in Sweden. The further Winter Games were held in 1992, in Tignes and Albertville, France due to an agreement between the IPC and IOC. Since then, both Winter and Summer Paralympic Games have taken place exactly two weeks after the Olympic Games, in the same arenas and on the same tracks and slopes.
As adaptive sports grew, they attracted remarkable technical innovations. Earlier the wheelchair athletes used to weigh 50 pounds and more whereas, now they just weigh 15 pounds with amazing opportunities for speed and manoeuvrability. Wood and steel have been replaced by titanium and graphite.
Microchips are embedded for balance and stability. Prosthetics are computer-fitted to the athlete’s body which will result in the smooth functioning of the Paralympic Games. From its humble beginnings in Stoke Mandaville, the Paralympic Movement is now one of the largest sporting phenomenons on earth, and the legacy created by Dr Ludwig Guttmann does not appear to be showing any signs of slowing down.
Visual Credits: Anupal Deuri Bharali
Written by Rajashree Roy, The North-Eastern Chronicle