By Ben Macintyre (from The Times, July 13 2012)
My favourite Olympian was small, short-sighted and tubby. He could not run fast, swim or jump. He smoked a pipe, and everyone called him “Poppa.” There is no evidence he ever participated in any form of competative sport. But he profoundly understood and changed the meaning of the Olympic Games.
His name was Ludwig Guttman; he was a pioneering German-Jewish neurosurgeon and he invented the Paralympics, Guttman knew that sport is not just about “faster, higher, stronger”, but also about overcoming limitations, extending the physically possible, and the extraordianry psychological benefit of sporting aspiration. He applied that understanding to mthe bodies and minds of men broken on the battlefields of the Second World War, and in so doing he helped to revolutionise modern attitudes towards disability.
Poppa Guttmann knew all about overcoming adversity. Born in a mining town in Upper Silesia in 1899, he worked after school in a hospital where he encountered a coalminer who had fractured his spine in an accident. When Guttman began writing up notes on the young man, he was told: “Don’t bother, he’ll be dead in a few weeks.” And so he was.
That experience would fuse with another. As a medical student at Freidburg, Guttman noticed the way that Jewish fraternities dedicated to sport gave their members extraordinary confidence and self-esteem: “Nobody needed to be ashamed of being a Jew.”
In 1933 Guttman was fired from the medical faculty at Breslau University after Germany’s race laws prohibited Jews from treating Aryans. He became director of the neurological department of Breselau Jewish Hospital, but by 1939 the Gestapo was closing in. He managed to smuggle most of his patients out of the hospital before they were rounded up, and then fled himself. Guttman arrived at Harwich with his wife and children in March 1939.
The British medical establishment was quick to utilise his remarkable talents and in 1943 Guttman was made director of a new spinal injuries centre at Stoke Mandeville, a hospital created in preparation for the expected casualties from the opening of the Second Front. At the time, the life expectancy of spinal-injury patients was two years.
Over the next five years, Guttman treated hundreds of wounded and paralysed soldiers. His programme aimed to reintegrate these disabled men and women into normal British life and he placed particular emphasis on sport, both as a physical rehabilitation but also as a path to rediscovering self-discipline, self-respect and team spirit.
The London Olympics of 1948, the first Games since 1936, rehabilitated a competition that had been gravely and almost fatally damaged by the war. Rationing was still in force and London still bore the scars of battle, as did some competitors. Jim Halliday fought in the retreat from Dunkirk and was then captured by the Japanese. He emerged from a POW camp weighing four-and-a-half stone. Three years later he won bronze in the weightlifting competition. The Hungarian champion marksman Károly Takács injured his right hand in a grenade blast, so he learned to shoot with his left, and won the rapid-fire pistol gold.
But traditional attitudes to disability were still entrenched. Jack Dearlove, father of the future MI6 chief Richard Dearlove, was cox of the British rowing eight in the 1948 Olympics. Dearlove had lost a leg in a car accident and walked on crutches, and while that impediment was not enough to prevent him steering his team to a silver medal, it was not considered the sort of thing the public would like to see. He was told not to take part in the Olympic procession.
At the precise moment that Jack Dearlove was sitting out of sight in the stands on the first day of the Olympics, Ludwig Guttman was organising the first games for people with disabilities. On July 28, 1948, 16 former soldiers (including two women) with spinal injuries gathered in wheelchairs on the lawn outside the Stoke Mandeville wards for an archery competition.
By 1952 the “Stoke Mandeville Games” had 130 international competitors; in 1960 the first Paralympic Gmes (the name was applied retrospectively) were held in Rome.
Today a simple, brilliant, humane idea that started on a Buckinghamshire lawn is the second largest sporting event in the world, with seven different classification of athletes, in addition to the Special Olympics for athletes with intellectual disabilities and the Deaflympics.
Guttman (by then “Sir Ludwig”) died in 1980, but the selection of Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee, to compete in the Olympic 400m race may be the final realisation of his vision: a disabled athlete so entirely rehabilitated by medical science that his disability is no longer relevant.
Pistorius’s victory over the loss of his legs is the culmination of a battle started by the disabled veterans of the Second World War. For the Paralympics, like the Olympics of 1948, represent a conquest over war itself and the suffering it brings. That is still the case today: a significant number of military personnel injured in Afghanistan and Iraqw have been selected for the London 2012 Paralympics, including the cyclist Jon-Allen Butterworth, who lost his left arm in a rocket attack in Iraq, and the rower Nick Beighton, who lost his legs in an explosion in Afghanistan in 2009. It is estimated that, by 2016, as many as one in 20 Paralympians will be injured war veterans.
For Guttman, the Paralympics was also a victory over for real scientific research over Hitler’s perverted science. As Guttman himself remarked: “Since the Nazis drove out Jewish scientists, British science has got ahead of the Germans.”
Hitler not only wanted to eliminate Jews such as Guttman, but also the disabled people Guttman championed. In 1933 the Nazis had begun the forced sterilisation of the disabled, depicted as “useless eaters” with “lives unworthy of living.” Some 275,000 disabled people were murdered at “euthenasia centres” under the Nazis’ unspeakable T4 programme.
But history has a sense of irony. By driving out this Jewish doctor, Hitler unintentionally set in train a course of events that would eventually lead to the Paralympics, an institution that has done more than any other to undermine negative images of disability across the world. Poppa Guttman ran a long, hard race against prejudice, but he won in the end.
NB: almost unbelievably, ATOS, the firm employed by the government to drive disabled people off benefits, and making huge profits by doing so, is a sponsor of the Paralympics. Join Disabled People Against the Cuts and UK Uncut in their protests, next week -JD.