Thank Adolf for the Paralympics
Little known fact – we’ve got Herr Hitler to thank for the Paralympics. The founding father of the Paralympic Games was a Jewish doctor on the run from the Nazis who took refuge in the UK. Ludwig Guttmann was born in Silesia in Germany in 1899 and got the hell outta there just before the war in March 1939 (a year after my dad who arrived in London in 1938 at the age of 1). He qualified in 1924 and by 1933 was considered the top Neurosurgeon in the country. Adolf’s arrival meant he couldn’t practice professionally other than in a Jewish-only hospital in Breslau. Once he made it to England he settled down to work at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford. He became a British citizen in 1945. Two years earlier he set up a spinal injuries unit based at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire. He was a strong advocate of sport as a therapy for spinal injury, building up strength and re-establishing self-belief.
In July 1948, timed to coincide with the opening of the London Olympics, he established the Stoke Mandeville Games which focused on wheelchair sports like archery and involved just over a dozen patients. By the time of the next Olympics (1952) 130 international competitors took part in the Stoke Mandeville Games. In 1960 (in Rome) they transformed into the Paralympic Games (a term which actually came into usage in 1984 [four years after the good doctor passed away] but is retrospectively applied to Rome). At Rome Margaret Maughan, one of Guttmann’s patients in the wake of a 1959 car accident, won Great Britain’s first ever Paralympic gold medal, in the archery competition. The 84 year old lit the flame in Thomas Hetherwick’s Olympic cauldron at last night’s marvellous Opening Ceremony.
Meanwhile back in the Athletes’ Village across the Olympic Park Guttmann’s daughter Eva Loeffler has been acting as the mayor of the village. “I think he would be immensely proud of what has happened. … For future Paralympic Games it shows they are in no way second class games, they’re parallel games.”
The opening ceremonies, Danny Boyle’s and last night’s by Bradley Hemmings and Jenny Sealey, were very much in parallel and complementary – seated giants of Science Tim Berners-Lee and Stephen Hawking, The Tempest, Shaky thesps Kenneth Branagh and Ian McKellen, umbrellas, that beautifully designed cauldron, patiently swaying volunteers, and crucially punk attitude in John Lydon and Ian Dury to give the whole thing real British bite. Add to that some gold medal worthy signing alongside the singers, the rapturous welcome of the GB Team in their Major Tom-style white & gold suits, DV8’s incredible David Toole (star of the brilliant Cost of Living) and a rousing climax to the soul sounds of Beverley Knight in I Am What I Am and I am fired up for a very special occasion born of a very special man.
Another Olympic thing we have to thank Adolf’s merry men for is the torch relay, made much of in both the Olympics and Paralympics in London 2012 – not an ancient Greek tradition but introduced by Carl Diem, organiser of the Berlin 1936 Games for some fake Classical dignity for the inglourious basterds.