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Rehabilitation through sport

Wheelchair racers speeding to victory, blind swimmers competing for gold, and disabled skiers pushing their bodies to the limit. These are today's Paralympians. They train hard. They play to win. And in recent years, Canadians have been winning big at the Paralympic Games. The Paralympics began as a postwar sporting event designed to get injured ex-soldiers moving again. But by the 1980s the Games had evolved into an elite international competition.

It all began with darts, archery and table tennis. Newly disabled soldiers were returning from the Second World War and Sir Ludwig Guttmann was working to rehabilitate them. As part of his revolutionary rehabilitation tactics, the British neurosurgeon organized an annual "Olympic-style" event for the disabled. In this 1976 TV clip, Guttmann explains how "sport restores activity of mind," and describes its power to restore "self confidence" and "self dignity" in the disabled.
• Sir Ludwig Guttmann began working as a neurosurgeon at England's Stoke Mandeville Spinal Injuries Unit in 1944. The unit was filled primarily with Second World War veterans with spinal cord injuries. At the time, most doctors believed such patients couldn't be rehabilitated. They often died of infected bedsores or kidney infections, the result of lying in one spot for too long. Since it was assumed they would die shortly, little was done to get them moving again.

• Guttmann didn't believe these patients were hopeless cases. He embarked on a rehabilitation program. His goal was to make them productive members of society again.
• He decided sports would be a good way to get paralysed patients moving. Sport became a mandatory part of their medical treatment. Activities like archery and table tennis were not only important in building up physical strength, thought Guttmann, but they were also crucial in lifting the patients' spirits.

• In the 1997 book Paralympics: Where Heroes Come, by Robert Steadward and Cynthia Peterson, Guttmann's former assistant Joan Scruton recalls how sport wasn't just an option for Guttmann's patients: "They had to do a sport. It was part of the treatment. It was not a question of would you like to do archery; it was part of the treatment, like taking their medicine, or doing physiotherapy. And Sir Ludwig made sure that they did it."

• The first Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralysed took place on July 28, 1948 — the same day the Olympics opened in London, England. There were 16 competitors, all of whom were British.
• After 1948, the Stoke Mandeville Games were held annually in the small town of Stoke Mandeville, England. In 1952, they took on an international scope when a Dutch team of paralysed athletes joined the games.

• 1960 was a turning point for the Stoke Mandeville Games, which would eventually be known as the Paralympics. They were held in Rome, the same city as the Summer Olympics. Their international scope had grown: 400 athletes came from 23 countries. All competitors had spinal cord injuries. Sports included: snooker, fencing, javelin, shot put, Indian club throwing, archery, darts, dart archery, men's wheelchair basketball, swimming, and the pentathlon (archery, swimming, club throwing, javelin and shot put).

• After Rome, the International Stoke Mandeville Games Federation — headed by Guttmann — decided to hold the games every four years in the same year as the Olympics. They tried to hold it in the same country as the Olympics as well, but this wasn't always possible. It wasn't until 1988 that the Paralympics were regularly held in the same city as the Olympics.
• The 1968 Stoke Mandeville Games, held in Tel Aviv, Israel, marked the first time Canada competed in the games.

• Sir Ludwig Guttmann passed away in 1980 at the age of 80. He received numerous honours for his pioneering work with the disabled during his lifetime, including Great Britain's Order of the British Empire and Commander of the British Empire.
Medium: Television
Program: CBC Sports
Broadcast Date: Sept. 25, 1976
Guest(s): Ludwig Guttmann
Duration: 2:33

Last updated: February 13, 2012

Page consulted on January 13, 2014

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