Back in 1948, a German neurologist named Ludwig Guttmann was working at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, England with World War II veterans who suffered spinal injuries. Guttmann firmly believed sport could be used to build physical strength and lift both self-esteem and self-respect in the wounded servicemen.
To that end, he organized an athletic event for disabled athletes to coincide with the London 1948 Olympics, which became known as the Stoke Mandeville Games. Guttmann pushed on the Stoke Mandeville Games for several years and by 1953 it became international when Dutch war veterans also decided to compete. It wasn’t long before the German doctor caught the attention of Olympic officials and was allowed to take 400 athletes from 23 countries to the 1960 Rome games and compete in a set of events parallel to the games for disabled athletes. Thus the Paralympics was born (para, meaning along side, as in parallel, not para as in paraplegic).
In 2001, agreements between the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee, which formed in 1989, ensured that the Paralympic games would be held the same year as the Olympics and use the same sites and facilities. Guttmann could have never imaged that his humble beginnings would one day become the second largest sporting event in the world with London having 4,200 athletes from 166 countries from around the globe these past few weeks.
Sept. 9 was the final day of what has been an unforgettable Paralympic Games. I had been in London to cover the Paralympics for the Santa Monica Daily Press, attending a number of events every day throughout the 11-day event and words cannot describe the London 2012 experience. People showed up in the tens of thousands to support the athletes in the 20 Paralympic sports, creating an electric atmosphere throughout the many exciting venues that were the exact same venues where the Olympics took place just two weeks earlier. Shocking as it was to the media and organizers, the 80,000 seat Olympic Stadium where the opening and closing ceremonies were held and the athletic competitions took place, were sold out for two sessions a day, and tickets were hard to come by for almost every game of the 20 different sporting events; 2.7 million tickets were sold, 90,000 more than at the Beijing Paralympics in 2008.
London’s 2012 Paralympics ended with a fiery finale and official handover to 2016 host, Rio de Janeiro, to what organizers say has been “the greatest Paralympic Games ever.” While declaring the 2012 Paralympics closed, International Paralympic Committee President Sir Philip Craven said: “These games have changed us all forever.”
The motto of the London Paralympics was “Inspire a Generation” (which it did), but from what I experienced this was the “Inspired Generation.”
Unfortunately NBC coverage was only 5 1/2 hours compared to 400 from the British Channel 4, an embarrassment for NBC and the media in general, but more on that later.
Please tune in this Sunday, Sept. 16, to NBC 4 for their wrap-up coverage of the 2012 Paralympic Games to show your support. It’s a 90-minute special, airing at 11 a.m. our time. I promise you will find the competition just as fierce and the triumphs just as uplifting as the Olympics, with stories about people you will care about. To learn more please go to www.paralympic.org/
Jack Walter is a Santa Monica developer and manufacturer of wood furniture who supports nonprofits focused on rehabilitative sports. He can be contacted at (310) 251-0286.