Ludwig Guttmann – a giant of disability sport

Fraser Kesteven profiles the man whose immense contribution is the reason that we will be celebrating the Paralympic Games in London...

Ludwig Guttmann was the inspiration for the modern Paralympic Games

Now that the Paralympics are nearly upon us, it is perhaps the best time to appreciate the extraordinary achievements of Ludwig Guttmann. Although he is not a household name, his contribution to disability sports is immeasurable and has provided him with a pre-eminent position within sporting history and culture. Originally from Germany, but later a naturalised Briton, Guttmann is credited as the founder of the modern Games, a derivative of the influential Stoke Mandeville Games which he created and organised in 1948. This was despite opposition to his ideas, with much of the prevailing sentiment of the time feeling that such sporting festivities would be degenerate and an embarrassment. With Guttmann’s perseverance and emotional endurance this was challenged and eventually defeated, something which has engendered happiness and purpose to those competing within disability sports, especially in the Paralympics.

It is through an analysis of his life that we can truly appreciate his courage and foresight. As a Jew, Guttmann was forced to flee Nazi persecution and sought refuge in Oxford, where he arrived in 1939. During the Second World War in 1943, he was asked by the British government of the time to form the National Spinal Injuries Centre. It was here at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital that Guttmann became director - a position he held until 1946 - and where his greatest ideas of the rehabilitative and restorative qualities of sport came to prominence. Despite challenging convention by incorporating sport into the daily routines of his patients, Guttmann gave hope and worthiness to those who had previously been dwelling in abject pessimism. This process, which was brilliantly portrayed in the recent BBC drama The Best of Men, proved that those with disabilities should not be defined by their physical impairments and that with enough perseverance and fortitude these limitations could be easily overcome.

His creation of the Stoke Mandeville Games of 1948 proved to be a true watershed moment for disability sport, to the extent that only 12 years later in 1960 the Games attained parity with the Summer Olympics. This specific achievement could be traced to the undeterred enthusiasm of Guttmann and those competing, and ultimately legitimised the competition into a previously unaware public consciousness. Although not officially named the Paralympics until much later, this is generally accepted as the first Games and it has been a monumental success eversince.  This was followed by him establishing what would eventually become the Disability Sport Events in 1961, something which also helped to further the progression of disability sports. It is for this devotion that he would be granted the honour of a knighthood in 1966, some years after he had already received an OBE and CBE.

Guttmann’s sacrifice and devotion to helping disability sports has secured his own legacy and furthered the positive image of such competitions throughout Britain and much of the world. Without his compassion and innovation, the Paralympics may still only be in a foetal stage of conception and lacking the great reputation it currently enjoys. Indeed, the central ideals of excellence, enjoyment and sacrifice that underpin the Games' ethos are easily traceable to the selflessness of Ludwig Guttmann. Certainly, the various adversities that Guttmann had to confront in his life testified to his indefatigable humanitarian characteristics, and many of these qualities have been translated into the sporting endeavours of the men and women which his work helped to facilitate. So when the actual competition begins on Thursday, and all the athletes officially put their efforts to the test, it will be to Ludwig Guttmann that they will owe their most humblest gratitude.




28th August 2012