This past Sunday, long-distance wheelchair racer, Tatyana McFadden, who has spina bifida “won her fifth overall New York title, earning her a fourth straight sweep of all four [New York, Chicago, Boston and London] major marathons,” reports Team U.S.A.org. The win made the 27-year-old McFadden the first woman in the history of wheelchair racing or elite running to do so. It was also a boon to McFadden, who was disappointed by her (nevertheless outstanding) performance this summer in the Rio Paralympics. McFadden’s historic marathon record got us thinking about the origins of wheelchair sports, which date back to the 1940s and Dr. Ludwig Guttmann.
Known as the “father of the Paralympics,” Guttmann, a prominent German Jewish neurosurgeon had the connections to escape Nazi Germany with his wife and children, settling in Oxford, England in 1939. Due to an influx of veterans with spinal cord injuries sustained during World War II, the British government put Dr. Guttmann in charge of a unit for veterans with paraplegia on the grounds of Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1944.
Guttmann took up his new post with great enthusiasm. According to a history compiled by the British Paralympic Association, the doctor “fundamentally disagreed with the commonly held medical view on a paraplegic patient’s future and felt it essential to restore hope and self-belief in his patients as well practical re-training so when they were well enough to leave they could once more contribute to society.”
One way that Guttmann believed wounded veterans could achieve this goal was through regular physical activity in the form of individual and team sports and vocational training in skills such as typing, woodwork and watch repair.
So convinced was Guttmann in the value of competition, that he decided to hold an archery contest at Stoke Mandeville on July 29,1948, the same day as the opening ceremony of the London 1948 Olympic games. Sixteen veterans participated in the contest, which was the first recorded instance of competition between athletes with disabilities.
In the years to come, more and more medical institutions and patient-athletes would come to the hospital to participate. In the early 1950s, the Stoke Mandeville games expanded to include veterans with spinal cord injuries from other countries. In 1960, the Stoke Mandeville Games were held outside of Great Britain for the first time. Athletes from 21 nations traveled to Rome where they “shared the same city and accommodation as their Olympic counterparts,” per the BPA history. “They came from every continent in the world and took part in nine events. Britain won 21 gold medals, 15 silver and 18 bronze. Rome would later become known as the first Paralympic Games. A precedent had been set.”
In 1960, the Paralympics included competitions in archery, wheelchair basketball, dart archery, wheelchair fencing, athletics, a cue sport called snooker, swimming and table tennis. Today’s Paralympics has grown to comprise 22 sporting events including wheelchair racing, basketball, tennis, fencing, rugby, archery, cycling, badminton, football, ice hockey, snow boarding, swimming, alpine skiing and cross country skiing. According to International Paralympic Committee, founded in 1989, and based in Germany, the Paralympic Games are now the second largest sporting event in the world.
You don’t have to be an elite athlete to get involved in wheelchair or adaptive sports. For more information, visit Adaptive Sports U.S.A.