The Stoke Mandeville Games: An Inauspicious Beginning to a Worldwide Phenomenon.

For an event that would later go on to become the largest ever sporting event for people with disabilities and the second largest sporting event on the planet after the Olympic Games the event now known globally as the Paralympic Games had a rather inauspicious beginning. It began life as an archery demonstration between two teams of Paraplegics from the Ministry of Pensions Hospital at Stoke Mandeville and the Star and Garter Home for Injured War Veterans at Richmond in Surrey. It was held in conjunction with the presentation of a specially adapted bus to the patients of Stoke Mandeville by the British Legion and London Transport. Perhaps more auspicious was the date chosen for the handover of the bus and the archery demonstration; Thursday, 29th July 1948, the exact same day as the opening ceremony for the Games of the Fourteenth Olympiad at Wembley in London less than thirty five miles away. It is difficult to assess whether this initial link to the Olympic Games was a deliberate one, or just coincidence, but it was a link that Guttmann himself would very overtly cultivate over the following years and decades. Guttmann later stated that the event was an experiment as a public performance, but also a demonstration to society that sport was not just the domain of the non-disabled (Guttmann, 1952). The aim of the bus was not only to allow patients to travel around the country to various activities and events, but also to allow them to get back out into the community and enter more into the life of the town. The bus would also be used to take competitors too many more archery competitions over the coming years against teams of both disabled and non-disabled archers.

Dr Guttmann’s ‘Grand Festival of Paraplegic Sport’, as the second incarnation of the Games were described, were held on Wednesday, 27th July 1949. Building upon much hard work done by Dr Guttmann, his staff and the impact of various Stoke Mandeville patients moving to other spinal units around the country and taking their new found enthusiasm for sport with them the number of spinal units entered rose to six (The Cord, 1949). A grand total of thirty seven individuals took part in these Games and with the exception of the archers from the PolishHospital at Penley every competitor had, at some time, been a patient of Dr Guttmann.  In addition to a repeat of the previous year’s archery competition, ‘net-ball’ was added to the programme for these Games. This was a kind of hybrid of netball and basketball played in wheelchairs and using netball posts for goals.

The next three years saw competitor numbers at the Games continue to grow as more and more spinal units from around the country began to enter teams. Guttmann, however, had far grander plans and continued with the hope that he could move the Games onto an international footing. One local paper claimed this had moved a step closer in 1951 with representation of competitors with a variety of nationalities including a Frenchman, an Australian, Poles and a Southern Rhodesian. With the exception of the Polish, who were residents of the Polish hospital at Penley, the others were all individual patients resident at British Spinal Units. The first step to Guttmann’s dream was to occur the very next year, 1952, when a team of four paraplegics from the Military Rehabilitation Centre, Aardenburg, near Doorn in the Netherlands became the first truly international competitors at the Games. Over the next four years the international nature of the Games rose dramatically so that in 1956 there were eighteen nations represented at the Games and a total of twenty-one different nations had competed since 1952 (Scruton, 1956).

Table 1 A Chronology of the Early Stoke Mandeville Games (1948 – 1959)

Date Teams Competitors

Sports

New Sport
Thurs 29th July, 1948

2*

16

1

Archery
Weds 29th July, 1949

6*

37

2

‘Netball’
Weds 27th July, 1950

10*

61

3

Javelin
Sat 28th July, 1951

11*

126

4

Snooker
Sat 26th July, 1952

2

130

5

Table Tennis
Sat 8th August, 1953

6

200

6

Swimming
Sat 31st July, 1954

14

250

7

Dartchery
Fri 29th – Sat 30th July, 1955

18

280

8

Fencing

Basketball replaced Netball

Fri 27th – Sat 28th July, 1956

18

300

8

Fri 26th – Sat 27th July, 1957

24

360

9

Shot Putt
Thurs 24th – Sat 26th July, 1958

21

350

10

Throwing the Club
Thurs 23rd – Sat 25th July, 1959

20

360

11

Pentathlon

(Archery, Athletics & Swimming Events)

* Number of Spinal Units Participating

Spreading the Word

It might appear hard to understand how an event that started life with just sixteen wheelchair archers in 1948 as a demonstration to the public that competitive sport is not the prerogative of the non-disabled could, just ten years later, find itself with several dozen international teams in attendance. In fact the Games grew to such an extent that despite several extensions to the accommodation it became necessary to introduce a national Stoke Mandeville Games from 1958 onwards from which a British team would be selected to take part in the international Games a month or so later (Scruton, 1957). There appear to be five possible mechanisms that played key roles in spreading the word regarding the Stoke Mandeville Games to various corners of the globe:

1. In the early years much of the driving force for the growth appears to have been down to former patients of Dr Guttmann’s who were transferred to other spinal units and took what they had learned, and their enthusiasm for it, with them. Many of them returned year after year to take part in the Games. To a slightly lesser extent this is also true of the doctors and surgeons from all over the world who visited Stoke Mandeville to train under Dr Guttmann and then returned home and incorporated sport into their treatment programmes, such as Dr Ralph Spira from Israel.

2. In 1947 the very first edition of ‘The Cord’ was published. This contained articles and advice of benefit to paraplegics everywhere and often gave space to reports on the sporting goings on at the hospital. Because practical information of assistance to paraplegics was in short supply copies of this journal often got sent abroad to individuals and organisations carrying news of the Games and Dr Guttmann’s rehabilitation methods far and wide. The journal continued to be published all the way up until 1983.

3. Dr Guttmann himself was a major player in spreading the word about the Games. He would often travel abroad to conferences, to give lectures and even to give evidence in court cases and would take every opportunity to tell people about the Games and his use of sport as a rehabilitative tool. He would often challenge particular key individuals in other countries to bring a team to the Games the following year as was the case with Sir George Bedbrooke at the RoyalPerthHospital on a visit in 1956. Australia sent their first team to Stoke Mandeville the following year (Lockwood & Lockwood, 2007).

4. Dr Guttmann also appears to have been very astute when it comes to politics and what it takes to get an event noticed. Right from the very first Games in 1948 he made sure that high ranking political and social figures and later sports stars and celebrities were present at the Games in order to attract profile and media attention.

5. The final mechanism used by Dr Guttmann to cement the importance of the Games in people’s minds, despite the luke-warm response it received when he first suggested it, was his constant comparisons to the Olympic Games. Its affect and design appears to have been two-fold. Firstly to give his patients something tangible to aim for and to give them a feeling of self-worth and, secondly, to catch the attention of the media and people and organisations involved with paraplegics worldwide.

(This blog post is an extract from Brittain, I., 2009, The Paralympic Games Explained, Routledge,UK)

For a more detailed description of the early Stoke Mandeville Games please see Brittain, I., 2012, From Stoke Mandeville to Stratford: A history of the summer Paralympic Games, Commonground; Champaign, Il.

Guttmann. L., 1952, On the Way to an International Sports Movement for the Paralysed, The Cord, Vol. 5 (3) (October): p. 7 – 23.

Lockwood, R. & Lockwood, A., 2007, ROLLING BACK THE YEARS: A history of wheelchair sports in Western Australia, Wheelchair Sports WA Inc; Perth, Australia.

Scruton, J., 1957, The 1957 International Stoke Mandeville Games, The Cord, Vol. 9(4): p. 7 – 28.

Scruton, J., 1956, International Stoke Mandeville Games, The Cord, Vol. 8(4): p.7-21.

The Cord, 1949, Stoke Mandeville Calling, 2(4): p.34-35.

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