The Olympics have Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern games. The Paralympics have Sir Ludwig Guttmann. Guttmann, a Jewish neurosurgeon who fled Nazi Germany, pioneered athletic competition as therapy for patients with spinal injuries and organized an archery competition for 16 patients at Britain’s Stoke Mandeville hospital in 1948. From this humble start have come the Paralympic Games, which this week will bring more than 4,000 athletes from around the world to London.
“The Guttmann story is massive,” Olympic historian Martin Polley said. “He was the one who linked rehab to competitive sport.”
This month has been Guttmann’s moment, with a BBC film about his life, The Best of Men, an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in London and his daughter, Eve Loeffler, being named mayor of the athletes village — a sort of ambassador in chief who welcomes the participants for games that start today and end on Sept. 9. It follows a resurgence of interest in Guttmann, who escaped in the late 1930s and settled in Britain, where his research on treating spinal patients drew the attention of the government. Guttmann began working with injured soldiers at Stoke Mandeville hospital, just north of London, during World War II — a time when suffering a spinal injury was considered a death sentence. Patients were discouraged from moving, leading to secondary infections from bed sores or from pneumonia. Known for an authoritarian streak and his stubborn insistence on changing the status quo, Guttmann swept into the hospital and took patients off sedation, which had been administered to make them comfortable. However, Guttmann was having none of that. No one was going to be comfortable.
“One patient told me: ‘I’m waiting for God almighty to take me up,’” the Times reported Guttmann as saying at a conference in 1962. “I told him: ‘While you are waiting, you can do some work.’”
He made the patients sit up and work muscles. Seeking to keep them motivated, he hit upon competition as a way to make them work harder. He tried wheelchair field hockey, but when that became too violent, he got the patients involved in wheelchair basketball, Loeffler said. It was tough and demanding, but grateful patients nicknamed him “Poppa.”
They were still paralyzed, but many lived — and carried out Guttmann’s wish that they become taxpayers.
Loeffler said her father was marked by his past. Many of his relatives perished in Auschwitz. He was driven, intent to give back to the country that had given his family refuge.
“I think that’s another thing that made him work so hard,” she said. “He was Hitler’s gift to this country in a way, and he was determined to be a good British citizen.”
On the same day that London opened its 1948 Olympics, Guttmann organized a competition for wheelchair athletes, which he called the Stoke Mandeville Games.
They involved 16 patients taking part in archery. From those humble origins, the Paralympics have grown into a festival of sport involving 4,200 athletes from 166 teams. Though smaller than the Olympics — which had more than twice the number of athletes — London’s event represents the largest field ever for the games.
The London event — the first to have come as a result of a joint bid from the host city — have also benefited from greater integration with the Olympics, particularly in terms of marketing and organization. London essentially connected the rings to the Agitos, the Paralympic symbol of three circling arcs — a move that helped also spread the fairy dust of attention that the Olympics receive to the Paralympics as well. Queen Elizabeth II agreed to open the event, a reflection of their importance to the country.