“I saw the birth of the Paralympics games – but they were not called that then.”
By Sheila King
In about 1946/7 I was a patient at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Nearly all patients in the ward I was in were there for the long term. The patients were mainly injured servicemen but there were a few of us who were polio victims and there was nowhere else for the likes of us to go. Between on-ward school lessons and undertaking exercises which it was anticipated would eventually lead to one’s rehabilitation, life was repetitive and boring. We were not ill, but not well enough to be part of the community outside the hospital.
Swimming was one of the more fun exercises which took place on a regular basis. The doctor in charge was a Dr. Ludwig Guttman.
One summer the routine changed. The swimming lessons became competitive. The patients in my ward were divided into teams who were to compete against each other. Our ‘exercises’ became fun and included all sorts of competitive swimming and wheelchair races, throwing the discus, and seeking items on a given list in the hospital grounds which required stretching and bending whilst in the wheelchair.
This was the small beginning – the following year Dr. Guttman invited other patients with similar physical problems from other hospitals in and around the area to become involved in this special day. From a day of competition, it grew to be a complete weekend with more and more patients from other hospitals joining in.
Eventually Dr. Guttman’s was given permission to increase these competitions so that they took place over a whole week. “The Games” as they were known simply to us started to become well-known as similar patients from hospitals in other parts of the world were invited to take part, they came from France, Spain, Italy and even the USA. This week eventually became known as the Stoke Mandeville Games.
At the end of the first Stoke Mandeville Games week, there was a prize giving ceremony. I remember we were all thrilled that the prizes were presented personally by Daniel Angel, a film producer. At that time, he was famous for producing the film ‘Reach For The Sky’ which was the story of Douglas Bader the British airman who lost both legs during WW2. I remember that prize giving ceremony very clearly because I was impressed by Daniel Angel this famous film producer who had overcome his disability which necessitated him to be tied to a wheelchair, especially as this was at the time when people with disabilities were seen as ‘nuisances’, and I was so impressed that he was a famous person who had ‘made it big’.
Over a period of time the Stoke Mandeville games became known all over the world. Dr. Guttman was knighted for his work with men and women with spinal and other physical disabilities.
After about 10 years (I don’t know the precise period), the Stoke Mandeville Games became what we now know as the Paralympic Games with hundreds of competitors from all corners of the globe taking part, but I still remember that first week when many men and women with disabilities came together and over the period of 7 days realised that they could compete in sports whilst still in their wheelchairs.
I am now in my 78th year, but I am proud to say I was there at the birth of what are now the International Paralympic Games. Ludwig Guttman will, I am sure, be enjoying the games as well as all of us.