Just as the modern Olympics took at least part of its inspiration from a modest multi-sport event in provincial England (the Wenlock Olympian Games), so too did the Paralympics. Its forerunner was the Stoke Mandeville Games, held at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury to coincide with the 1948 London Olympics.
They were the brainchild of Ludwig Guttmann, a German-Jewish neurologist who had fled Nazi Germany and who ending up running the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville. He envisaged the establishment of an international tournament for disabled athletes that would mirror the Olympics. The first Games were rather modest, comprising solely of a team of wheelchair-using archers drawn from paralysed British World War II veterans.
Four years later, the hoped-for international dimension evolved when a group of Dutch war veterans took part in the event, by now known as the International Stoke Mandeville Games. By 1960, Guttmann’s plans were nearing completion, with the Games held in Rome and re-badged as the first Paralympic Games. Entry was extended beyond ex-soldiers and in the region of 400 athletes from 23 countries participated. While the infrastructure of the Eternal City wasn’t as Paralympian-friendly as that of future host cities, athletes successfully competed across a range of sports, including snooker, swimming, fencing, javelin and Indian club throwing.
The Games, held every Olympic year, continued to grow. In 1976, entry was widened to include not just wheelchair athletes but amputees and the visually impaired could now join the sporting extravaganza. In the years since, the Paralympics have become increasingly sophisticated and professional – after the Seoul event in 1988, one senior official noted how the competitors were now being regarded as “athletes rather than patients”.
Dr Guttmann, who died in 1980, would surely have been thrilled by the Paralympics’ return to the UK in 2012, when 4,237 competitors fought it out across 20 sports. And – in a neat touch that tipped its hat to the Games’ rather smaller origins – its official mascot was called Mandeville.
This Q&A was written by Nige Tassell, a journalist specialising in history. It first appeared in the August 2016 issue of BBC History Revealed magazine