At the opening of the 1948 London Olympics, everyone had expected that Sydney Wooderson, an all-time great, would carry the heavy Olympic torch in the final leg of its journey into Wembley Stadium. This small, quiet, unassuming man, 33-year-old solicitor’s clerk from London, was known as “The Mighty Atom”. He was a world record holder at 880 yards and one mile, 5000 metres European champion, and national cross-country champion.
Instead, a relatively unknown 22-year-old six foot two Cambridge medical student, John Mark, of very average ability was chosen – purely for his youth, vitality and good looks. Unlike Wooderson who was weedy looking and wore glasses, Mark sent girls swooning. The golden boy ran in perfect rhythm round the track, saluted, and lit the flame in the bowl to great applause. But some spectators were shocked that Wooderson had been sidelined and an “anonymous Adonis” had been chosen and secretly trained for the part instead.
Opportunities for those with disabilities to compete in sport were once extremely limited, although a “Cripples Olympiad” was held in the USA in 1911, and a sports competition for the deaf, the Silent Games, took place in Paris in 1924.
Following the Second World War, in response to the needs of large numbers of injured ex-service members and civilians, sport was introduced as a key part of rehabilitation. This grew into recreational sport and then into competitive sport, with wheelchair athletes taking part in the Stoke Mandeville Games (1948).
But no disabled athletes could take part in the Olympics before 1960, when the first Paralympics was held in Rome. With the encouragement of Ludwig Guttmann and Antonio Maglio, director of the Spinal Centre in Rome, a range of competitive sports was arranged that were considered suitable for athletes with spinal cord injuries. Four hundred athletes from 23 countries competed. The event marked a tremendous step forward in sport for athletes with a disability.
But even in 1960 the Paralympics were only for athletes in wheelchairs. Today a much wider variety of disabled athletes are catered for, including amputees (1976), and those with Cerebral Palsy (1980), intellectual disabilities and visual impairment.
In 1960 there were no lifts where the disabled athletes were housed in the Olympic village, so the Italian army had to carry them up and down the stairs. Following this, a succession of cities refused to host the Paralympics, claiming they lacked suitable facilities. So they had to be held in other venues, sometimes even in a different country. In 1968 when Mexico City refused to host the Paralympics they were held instead in Tel Aviv; in 1980 when Moscow refused (a Soviet official thundering “There are no invalids in the U.S.S.R.!”) the Paralympics were held in Arnhem, the Netherlands instead. Not until the Seoul Olympics in 1988 were the Olympics and the Paralympics staged together.
While television companies in the USA have been criticised for scarcely mentioning the Paralympics, coverage in Europe has been growing: Channel 4 screened more than 400 hours in 2012, and they have been exciting to watch. The atmosphere in the Aquatic Centre, commented London Chairman Lord Coe, was “even better than during the Olympics”.
On the first day of the 1936 Berlin Olympics — the first to be televised to the world — Adolf Hitler shook hands with some of the winning athletes. Next day he did not shake hands with the black African-American track and field athlete, Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals – in the 100 metres, 200 metres, long jump, and 4 × 100 metre relay. It is often claimed that Hitler deliberately snubbed Owens because he had shown the Fuhrer’s theories of Aryan racial superiority to be unfounded.
This is a myth. When Hitler only shook hands with the German competitors on the first day, Olympic officials told him that he should either congratulate all the winners, or none at all. Hitler opted for none.
The man who actually snubbed Owens was President Franklin D Roosevelt. After the 1936 Berlin Olympics, only the white athletes were invited to see and meet Roosevelt. Owens – the most successful athlete at the games – bemoaned that he “wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President”.
Jesse Owens was finally recognised in 1955, when President Eisenhower belatedly named him a “Goodwill Ambassador for Sport”.
The 1936 Berlin Olympics has courted controversy for other reasons. Jewish high jumper Gretel Bergmann was one of Germany’s star athletes in the mid-1930s. In 1934 she came first in the high jump at the British championships in London, and on 30 June 1936, one month before the opening of the Berlin Olympics, she equalled the German record by jumping 1.60 metres.
The USA threatened to boycott the Olympics because of Hitler’s racial policies. An Olympics without the USA was unthinkable, so Hitler was keen to give the appearance that Jewish athletes were welcome in the German team.
Out of the blue, on 16 July 1936, when the US team was safely on its way and it was too late for them to turn back, the German Olympic Committee sent Bergmann a letter stating that due to her recent “poor performances” she was not good enough to represent Germany.
In 1938, with no hope of pursuing an athletics career in Germany, Bergmann decided to emigrate to the USA. Bergmann lamented how she had had been deprived of “the thrill of a lifetime… simply because I was born as a Jew”.
The Games once excluded women from competition. Founder of the Modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863–1937), believed “that a woman’s greatest achievement would be to encourage her sons to be distinguished in sports and to applaud a man’s effort”.
Thirty-year-old Stamata Revithi, was having none of this. She was determined to run in the 40-kilometre marathon during the 1896 Athens Summer Olympics, the first modern games. Having enjoyed long-distance running as a child, the Greek revelled in the prospect of beating her male competitors.
When she arrived in the village of Marathon, a male Greek runner teased her, predicting that by the time she returned to the Panathinaiko Stadium, the crowds would have given up and gone home.
On the day before the race, Friday 29 March 1896, the old priest of Marathon said a prayer for the athletes but refused to bless Revithi because she was not an “officially recognized” athlete.
The organising committee ultimately refused her entry into the race, ostensibly because the deadline for participation had expired. It promised instead to allow her to compete in another race against American women athletes. Strangely, that race never took place.
In the event, only nine of the 17 male runners finished the marathon, which was won by Spiridon Louis.
Revithi ran the following day, and had the mayor sign a statement testifying to the time she departed from the village. She finished the marathon in approximately 5 hours and 30 minutes and found witnesses to verify her running time, but officials prevented her from entering the stadium at the end of the race. Revithi intended to present her documentation to the Hellenic Olympic Committee, hoping that they would recognise her achievement, but it is not known whether she did so.
In the following Olympics, held in Paris in 1900, women were allowed to participate for the first time.
Dr Robert Hume was head of history at Clarendon House Grammar School, Ramsgate, Kent (1988-2010) and now writes features for the Irish Examiner. Among his publications is a series of books for the 12-16 age range about characters on the sidelines of history. In Clearing the Bar: One Girl’s Olympic Dream, Hume tells the story of Jewish athlete Gretel Bergmann and her ordeal to be selected for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin
This article was first published in 2016