1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Back to the Paralympics' roots

Ronny Blaschke / mzAugust 28, 2012

More than 4,200 athletes from 166 countries will participate in the London Paralympics, 60 years after a Jewish doctor who escaped Nazi Germany founded the Paralympics in a small town nearby.

Germany's Norbert Mosandl rides in the HCC class during the men's time trial HCC (Hand Cycle C) at the Triathlon Venue On the outskirts of Beijing, during the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games, China, 12 September 2008. Mosandl finished in fifth position. EPA/DIEGO AZUBEL +++(c) dpa - Report+++
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

It's not an exaggeration to describe Eva Löffler as the living legacy of Paralympic sports.

"I feel very connected with the movement," said Löffler, who is serving as the mayor of the Paralympic village in London. She has a knack for telling gripping anecdotes, one of the reasons she was named the games' ambassador for the past and the future.

But her connection to the games goes even deeper. Her father was Sir Ludwig Guttmann, a trailblazer for the Paralympic Games, and someone who is likely to come up in discussions with Löffler as the games get underway.

"If he was in London with us, he would be so proud," Löffler said during a presentation. "His dream has become a reality."

On Wednesday, the 14th Summer Paralympics - the global athletic competition for athletes with disabilities - get underway. All told, 503 competitions will be held in 20 sports, contested by 4,200 athletes from 166 countries - including 150 German athletes who have made the trip to London.

The hosts are hoping for a grand and glorious sporting event with many records, but they'll also be taking a look back to the foundation of the Paralympics. After all, the games are returning to their roots.

Stoke Mandeville Paralympics - International Sports Festival For The Paralysed (L-R) 25 year old Kathleen Yates takes on 17 year old Julia Brockwell in the ladies' foils championship 26.07.1957
Wheel chair fencing is another sport that started in MandevilleImage: picture-alliance/dpa/empics

The birth of a sport

During 'Kristallnacht,' the Night of Broken Glass, on November 9, 1938, when SA troops in Nazi Germany staged a series of attacks against Jews in the country, a German neurologist named Ludwig Guttmann - himself the son of a Jewish restaurant owner - took in 60 Jews who were fleeing the violence at a clinic in Breslau, as the city of Wroclaw was then called.

"When the Gestapo came, my father invented diseases for all of them," Löffler recalled in an interview with the BBC.

Guttmann fled to England in 1939 with his wife, two children, and 40 marks in his pocket. In the small town of Stoke Mandeville, northwest of London, Guttmann went on to revolutionize the treatment for paraplegics. They would no longer be hidden away. Instead, their quality of life improved with round-the-clock care.

"He very quickly realized that it's important for people who had disabilities, who had been injured, to actually have physical challenges," said Rickie Burman, the director of the Jewish Museum in London.

The museum has an exhibit dedicated to Guttmann and contains some powerful pictures: In the fall of 1944, Guttmann ran into some patients at the hospital racing across the floor in their wheelchairs using walking sticks to bat about a disc. Guttmann joined in, and the sport of wheelchair polo was born.

A tremendous vision

Soon, many patients were participating in sports. The movement improved their immune system and built up their confidence. Guttmann organized an archery and table-tennis competition next to the hospital for war veterans who had been injured.

"As a Jew, my father felt a connection to other minorities," Guttmann's daughter Löffler said. As an eleven-year-old, she helped out at the first games at the end of July, 1948, by preparing the bows for the archery competition and collecting the balls for table tennis. Those games opened on the same day as this year's Olympic games, which concluded two weeks ago in London.

HANDOUT - With just under two weeks to go until the start of the Paralympic Games, a giant set of Agitos, the symbol for the Paralympic Games, has today been launched outside Cardiff City Hall. This is the first of five sets of giant Paralympic Agitos to launch in the UK before the Paralympic Games begin on the 29th August. Photo: LOCOG (ATTENTION: Only for editorial use) +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
The Paralympics have been organized by the same team as the Olympics in LondonImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"It's absolutely tremendous what Ludwig Guttmann did," said former swimmer Chris Holmes, one of Britain's most successful Paralympians who now heads the planning of the Paralympics for the London Organizing Committee. "To have the vision to see just what is possible in terms of putting on an Olympic games for disabled men and women. That's a tremendous thought. His shadow quite rightly looms large [over the games]."

The four-year cycle of the games began in 1960. In 1984, the Paralympics returned to Stoke Mandeville. This was the last time that the Paralympics did not take place in the summer Games' home city, with Seoul the first Olympic host to also welcome disabled athletes.

Holmes says this new spirit of unity has been strengthened further in 2012.

For the first time in history, all aspects of the Paralympics and the Olympics - from transportation to catering to technical aspects - have been prepared in tandem.

"There's no segregation between a Paralympic department and an Olympic department. It's all one organizing committee," Holmes said.

Raising the standards

The Paralympics are already record breaking: 2.2 of 2.5 million tickets have been sold. Six thousand journalists are on hand, and all 55 Olympic sponsors are also supporting the Paralympics. The British TV station Channel 4 will broadcast 150 hours of the Paralympics.

The Beijing Paralympics in 2008 were a turning point for the games. Two thousand bus stops and 120 train stops were outfitted with equipment to make them accessible for people in wheelchairs.

The standards for people with disabilities in Great Britain are already high, but new elevators and ramps are still being built. It's hoped that the involvement of the British at the Olympics can be repeated for the Paralympics.

Ludwig Guttmann died in 1980, after saving the lives of many disabled war veterans. The BBC made a TV drama about him, and one of the London 2012 mascots was named Mandeville after the town where the Paralympics all began. In just a few weeks, a bronze statue of him will be unveiled near Stoke Mandeville.

"The similarity is striking," said Guttmann's daughter, Eva Löffler. "The Paralympics have brought him a little bit to life."