The Best of Humanity

The Paralympics showcases the best of the human spirit, resilience, triumph and sporting excellence

By Rolene Marks

I am completely devoid of sporting ability. The only thing I have been able to run for successfully is a shoe sale; I can swim in a pool of emotions and if it requires a bat, stick, racket, hoop and a ball, count me out. It is for this and so many reasons that I love watching the Olympic Games. I marvel at the magnificent sporting prowess of the athletes, celebrating and competing at the pinnacle of their careers. The spirit of sportsmanship evident in the competition transcending politics. I have a healthy appreciation for the sheer tenacity, talent and sportsmanship.

I love the Paralympics even more.

The Paralympics are the embodiment of the triumph of the human spirit and the best of humanity, a sentiment echoed by Andrew Parsons, the President of the International Paralympic Committee when he opened the latest games in Tokyo, Japan.

Andrew Parsons, the President of the International Paralympic Committee

The Paralympics brings together the best international athletes with disabilities and takes place after both the summer and winter games.  

This year, the games are taking place against the backdrop of the omnipresent Corona virus pandemic which means that these amazing sportsmen and women have competed with virtually no spectators but this has not diminished their spirit.

Israel had the best Olympics in its history. Known more for being more of a start-up than sporting nation, we surpassed our expectations with a 4 medal haul – two gold and two bronze. Our Paralympians have even surpassed that! At the time of writing this, our medal tally stands at 4 gold 2 silver and a bronze.

Monumental Medalists. Medal-winning Paralympic swimmers back in Israel on August 20, 2018, from left (seated), Ami Dadon, Iyad Shalabi and Inbal Pezaro; (standing) Mark Malyar, Erel Halevi and Yoav Valinsky. (Photo courtesy of Israel Paralympics Committee)
 

The story behind how the Paralympics started is quite extraordinary.

The games were the brainchild (quite literally!) of Sir Ludwig Guttman CBE FRS, a German-British neurologist. Born on the 3rd of July 1899 in the town of Tost, Upper Silesia, Guttmann always had an affinity with medicine. In 1917, while volunteering at an accident hospital in Königshütte, he encountered his first paraplegic patient, a coal miner with a spinal fracture who later died of sepsis. That same year, Guttmann passed his Abitur at the humanistic grammar school in Königshütte before being called up for military service. Guttmann started studying medicine in April 1918 at the University of Breslau. He transferred to the University of Freiburg in 1919 and received his Doctor of Medicine (MD) in 1924 and by 1933, Guttmann was working in Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland) as a neurosurgeon and lecturing at the university.

Founding Father. Portrait of Professor Sir Ludwig Guttmann the father of the Paralympic movement.

The world would soon dramatically change with the Nazi rise to power and so to for the Guttmann family.

The Nazis assumed power in 1933 and immediately began to target Germany’s Jews. The antisemitic Nuremberg Laws were introduced and as part of these discriminatory measures, Jews were banned from practicing medicine professionally. Guttmann was assigned to work at the Breslau Jewish Hospital, where he became Medical Director in 1937. After Kristallnacht on 9 November 1938 when synagogues, Jewish property and individuals were violently attacked, Guttmann ordered his staff to admit any patients without question. The following day, he justified his decision on a case-by-case basis with the Gestapo. Out of 64 admissions, 60 patients were saved from arrest and deportation to concentration camps.

Man of Vision. Sir Ludwig Guttmann, the Jewish doctor who escaped the Nazis and founded the Paralympics.

In early 1939, Guttmann and his family left Germany, fleeing Nazi persecution of the Jews. An opportunity for escape had come when the Nazis provided him with a visa; and ordered him to travel to Portugal to treat a friend of the Portuguese dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar. Guttmann was scheduled to return to Germany via London when the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (CARA) arranged for him to remain in the United Kingdom. He arrived in Oxford, England, on 14 March 1939 with his wife, Else Samuel Guttmann, and their two children: a son, Dennis, and a daughter, Eva, aged six. CARA negotiated with the British Home Office on their behalf, and gave Guttmann and his family £250 (equivalent to £16,000 in 2019) to help them settle in Oxford.

Guttmann continued his spinal injury research at the Nuffield Department of Neurosurgery in the Radcliffe Infirmary. The family became members of the Oxford Jewish community, and Eva remembers becoming friendly with Miriam Margolyes, an actress famous for her role in Harry Potter as Professor Pomona Sprout.  The Jewish community in Oxford grew rapidly as a result of the influx of displaced academic Jews from Europe.

Actress Miriam Margolyes

Guttmann’s skill and reputation in the medical field began to grow.

In September 1943, the British government approached Guttmann with an idea to establish the National Spinal Injuries Centre at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire. The initiative came from the Royal Air Force to make sure that the treatment and rehabilitation of pilots with spinal injuries, “who often crashed on approach with their bombers damaged”. The centre opened on 1 February 1944, and was the United Kingdom’s first specialist unit for treating spinal injuries. Guttmann was appointed its director, a position he held until 1966. He believed that sport was an important method of therapy for the rehabilitation of injured military personnel, helping them build up physical strength and self-respect.

History of the Paralympic Games

Guttmann became a naturalised British citizen in 1945 and organised the first Stoke Mandeville Games for disabled war veterans, which was held at the hospital on 29 July 1948, the same day as the opening of the London Olympics. All participants had spinal cord injuries and competed in wheelchairs. In an effort to encourage his patients to take part in national events, Guttmann used the term Paraplegic Games. These came to be known as the “Paralympic Games“, which later became the “Parallel Games” and grew to include other disabilities.

Early Days. Javelin throw with Ludwig Guttmann watching.

Guttmann was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 1950 King’s Birthday Honours, as “Neurological Surgeon in charge of the Spinal Injuries Centre at the Ministry of Pensions Hospital, Stoke Mandeville”. His other investiture honours include being made an Associate Officer of the Venerable Order of Saint John on 28 June 1957, promoted to Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1960, and knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1966, becoming Sir Ludwig Guttmann!

Right Royal. Her Majesty the Queen congratulating an Israeli participant at the 1969 Stoke Mandeville Games with Ludwig Guttmann looking on. (left)

In 1961, Guttmann founded the International Medical Society of Paraplegia, now the International Spinal Cord Society (ISCoS) and was the inaugural president, a position that he held until 1970. He also became the first editor of the journal, Paraplegia (now named Spinal Cord) and retired from clinical work in 1966; but continued his involvement with sport, seeing the incredible healing effect it had on participants.

Sir Ludwig Guttmann suffered a heart attack in October 1979, and died on 18 March 1980 at the age of 80.

His lasting legacy is the Paralympic Games.

The Paralympic games now include sports as diverse as fencing, basketball, swimming, table-tennis, football, cycling, equestrian events and so many, many more and have inspired other such events such as the hugely popular Invictus Games, founded by Prince Harry for disabled war veterans from different armies from around the world.

Enter Israel. Athletes from Israel enter the stadium during the opening ceremony for the 2020 Paralympics at the National Stadium in Tokyo, Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
 

Today’s Paralympic athletes are a reflection of their great founder, Sir Ludwig Guttmann. The athletes that compete are the embodiment of the human spirit, of tenacity, endurance, courage, perseverance and fortitude. I cannot help but think that Sir Ludwig Guttmann (MD) would be so proud of how the games have grown and the joy they inspire.

This is the human spirit at its best!

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