by Jim Lewis
Formerly of The Guardian
The idea that the handicapped and disabled should be allowed to participate in sporting activities took root in Britain during the second world war when a German exile, Dr. Ludwig Guttman, won Government approval to open a special centre to treat war casualties with injured spinal cords. His novel techniques transformed the lives of thousands of people.
Working at the now world famous Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire, central England, Dr. Guttman wanted to do more than save lives. He wanted to give his patients a purpose in life, to restore their self-confidence, dignity and activity of mind. So he included sports - archery and wheelchair polo - into his rehabilitation programme.
After the war, and to coincide with the Olympic Games in London in 1948, Dr. Guttmann organised a programme of wheelchair games at Stoke Mandeville in which 16 athletes participated. In 1952 they became the "international" Stoke Mandeville Games, attracting 150 participants, including paralysed war veterans from Holland.
This led to the birth of the Paralympic Movement and eventually to the World Paralympic Games, held in parallel with the Olympic Games. Dr. Guttmann was knighted and, in retirement, built special sports centres for the disabled with facilities for a wider range of sports - swimming, table-tennis, snooker and weight-lifting.
More importantly perhaps these early steps laid to rest for all time the idea that the disabled were second-class citizens entitled only to misplaced pity. In the process once-common descriptions such as "invalids" and "cripples" have virtually disappeared. And their disappearance has altered public perceptions and official policy.
There are now national associations covering every imaginable sport for the disabled wheelchair archery, athletics, racing, basketball, bowls, racquetball, rugby, snooker, tennis and table-tennis.
Other associations cover paraplegic fencing, sailing, shooting, swimming, weight-lifting and sledging tin which players use special sleds made of a seat bolted to two ice-hockey skates).
The Guttmann Sports Centre has latterly been extended to cater for basketball, table-tennis, weight-lifting, badminton and even indoor cricket. An associated Lady Guttmann Bowls Centre has a large indoor hall with six rinks. Outside there is a six-lane all-weather track and the centre has living accommodation for 450 wheelchair-users.
No other part of the country can yet equal this kind of provision but rapid progress is being made. This is mainly because the Government, local authorities, and private-sector organisations have come to accept that any facility provided for able-bodied people must also be accessible to the disabled.
So if a local council builds a sports centre it is provided with ramps, lifts, wide doors, non-slip floors and toilets and washrooms for the disabled. In many areas, planning permission is withheld if this is not done.
Once a sports centre is built, special sessions are often held for the disabled, particularly in those sports where the handicapped cannot compete against abled-bodied rivals. In many sports, however notably bowling, shooting, snooker, table-tennis - the disabled can now compete on equal terms with the able-bodied. And, increasingly, the rules of various sports are being altered slightly to allow this to happen.
In Manchester, for example, all the buildings intended for the Commonwealth Games in 2002 (some are already in use) are designed to be suitable for the Paralympic Games, for which the city made an unsuccessful bid in 1994.
There is little point in making sport possible for the handicapped if there are obstacles which hinder their way to the sporting arena. So, in Manchester, an overseas competitor could make his or her way from an aircraft, through customs and immigration controls to the arrivals hall, and thence to car park, taxi-rank, or railway station, without ever encountering stairs or steps.
All taxis in the city are required to be wheelchair-accessible. Entrances to public buildings have been redesigned, kerbstones lowered, and textured paving laid to make movement easier for people who are blind or in wheelchairs. All this is as important as making sport possible for the disabled.
Very similar provisions have been made in Birmingham, which also made an unsuccessful bid for the millennium Olympics, and in Sheffield, which hosted the last World Student Games.
Britain now holds far more national and international sporting events in which the disabled can compete than any other country in the world. Many of them are still held at Stoke Mandeville, though others are to be found in cities and small towns throughout the country.
Out of the 1995 world programme of more than 60 events, 35 were held in Britain. The United States hosted six, France five, the Netherlands four, Sweden three, and Belgium two. Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Switzerland, Austria , South Africa, Finland and Japan each hosted one.
In those early post-war days, disabled athletes had no choice but to compete in their standard-issue wheelchairs - wood and upholstery affairs that were more than a hindrance than a help. Designs changed in the 1960s but the heavy steel chairs that emerged offered greater mobility but were far from being ideal as sports-chairs.
Demands for lightweight, highly manoeuvrable sports-chairs - for racing and basketball in particular led to further experiments in design using light alloys and in the last few years, the alloys have given way to carbon fibre and ceramics.
An economic spin-off from this is that there are now at least 12 companies in Britain devoted solely to the manufacture and supply of custom-built sports-chairs designed specifically for the user and his or her sport - lightweight if intended for racing or heavier "throwing chairs" for competitors in discus, javelin, and shot putt.