From Rome to Rio: The Paralympic Legacy

Because of the recent improvement in coverage and attendance of the Paralympic games (although there is room for improvement), some fans might be surprised to learn that this year’s summer Paralympic games is only the fifteenth iteration.  While various clubs have existed for people with disabilities since the 1880’s it wasn’t until after World War II that the Paralympic movement found traction in it’s current form. With such a large number of people (both military personnel and civilians alike) having been permanently injured as a result of the war, the demand for rehabilitation centers skyrocketed.

ludwig_guttmann2

Dr. Guttmann

In 1944, in response to the demand, the British government asked Dr. Ludwig Guttmann to open a spinal injury center at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, England. Guttmann’s program initially sought to help the injured rehabilitate, but before long it had evolved into a thing of recreation, and eventually became competitive. As a result, Dr. Guttmann organized the Stoke Mandeville Games. The first Stoke Mandeville Games took place on the 29th of July in 1948, the same day as the opening ceremonies of the 1948 London Olympic Games. Gutmann’s games were for wheelchair athletes, and consisted of sixteen wounded service men and women competing in Archery.

Four years later in 1952, wounded Dutch servicemen joined the competition, and the Stoke Mandeville Games became the International Stoke Mandeville Games. From there, the games would continue to grow, with eighteen different teams participating, including the likes of: the USA, Australia, Israel, South Africa, Malaya and Pakistan. And, while the games were well received, even receiving recognition from the Olympic committee, Guttmann’s international games wouldn’t become recognized under the Paralympic banner for years to come.

That said, the 1960’s international games are now widely considered to be the first Paralympic games, despite still being under their International Stoke Mandeville Games banner. They are considered as such, because the games were hosted in Rome in the Olympic venue following the conclusion of the Olympic Games. From that point on, the Paralympic movement continued to grow and expand, going on to open itself up to athletes with a variety of disabilities.

It is thanks to the legacy of Dr. Guttmann and all athletes involved in the early years of Paralympic sports, that today’s spectators are now treated to demonstrations of incredible athletic prowess time and time again. And, if this year’s events are any indication, the trend will only continue to improve, as was evidenced on September 11th when four Paralympians finished the men’s T12/13 (visually impaired) 1500 m race with times that were faster than the time of the Olympic gold medal winner. The winning time for the Paralympic men was 3:48:29 and was run by Abdellatif Baka of Algeria, while the fourth place finisher, Abdellatif’s brother Fouad, finished in 3:49:84. Abdellatif’s win, a world record, was almost two seconds ahead of American Olympic winner Matthew Centrowitz Jr’s time of 3:50:00, meaning that had those men been running in the Olympic version of the event, they would have kept all of the Olympic medal winners off of the podium.

The men of the 1500 m and their accomplishment are undoubtedly impressive, but they are not alone. Six days into the Paralympic Games, 132 world records and 214 Paralympic records were broken. And it is likely that in the last two days more records will be broken and set. For those interested in following the remaining days, live streams, results and schedules can be found on the US Paralympic website.

Michaela Smith, American History, msmit133@villanova.edu
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