Today we welcome the Paralympics games to London. The UK was the birthplace of the Paralympic movement with the original games taking place at Stoke Mandeville hospital in Aylesbury in 1948 – this is where the Paralympic mascot Mandeville gets his name.
At that time, many soldiers with spinal injuries from World War Two were cast off and assumed to be of little value to society if they could no longer walk. The neurologist Ludwig Guttman (later Sir Ludwig) started using sport to treat patients with spinal injuries – not just to improve their physical wellbeing, but to demonstrate to the patients and their families that these former soldiers might be in wheelchairs, but they could still achieve a lot in life.
Attitudes to those with a physical disability have changed a lot since 1948. It is no longer considered to be the end of an active and fulfilling life – as it once was. Public spaces, shops, buses, and trains are now (mostly) designed to accommodate those who need a chair to get around.
But the really interesting thing about these Paralympic games is that it is the first time the games has gone completely mainstream. The tickets have entirely sold out – the events are going to be packed to the rafters. Channel 4 TV is covering every single Paralympic event – something broadcasters have not done before.
And the fans are anticipating these games in London in a way that resembles the fantastic Olympic games we just enjoyed. It’s not just respect for overcoming physical challenges and succeeding against adversity. Forget all that. Have you ever watched wheelchair rugby? Those guys are as tough as anyone… put some able-bodied ice hockey stars in chairs and they wouldn’t be able to compete against these rugby players.
Surely one of the greatest legacies of these games will be that some international heroes from this summer of sport are going to be people who might have had very little respect half a century ago. This is real respect for real athletes and will make the Paralympics every bit as great as the Olympics we all just enjoyed!
Photo by Attila Husejnow licensed under Creative Commons