Pioneers of Disability Sport

03/06/2015 13:25


Global awareness of disability sport is at an all-time high. Following the success of Londons 2012 Paralympics  arguably the biggest and most wide reaching event of its kind so far  games for the disabled have been placed on the same pedestal as non-disabled events. As a result, disabled athletes have finally started to receive the same reverence as able-bodied athletes, becoming not just recognised for triumphs over adversity, but for their achievements as competitors and athletes.

However, the route to recognition has been a long one for disabled athletes. Before the Paralympics became a pathway for the creation of pop-culture icons, organised sports for the disabled were few and far between, viewed as marginal pursuits, or in many cases simply non-existent.

This isnt to say that those with physical disabilities didnt compete in sporting events before the creation of the Paralympics, but that the opportunities to do so were slim. One of the earliest recorded organised events occurred in New York in 1911. Although the name of the event  the Cripples Olympiad  reflects prejudices of the time, press reports of the games were positive. The Welshman Walter William Francis was particularly praised for his achievements, winning the running and wresting events and being described as an extraordinary personality. Francis was somewhat of a minor icon of the times, competing in rugby, football, and wrestling, swimming 15 miles across the Welsh channel, and seemingly never letting his disability get in the way of any potential achievements.

As events like the Cripples Olympiad were far from regular, the physically disabled in the early 20th century had little platform to compete in sports. However, this didnt put athletes off from competing in events, as seen with the German-American George Eyser. A single leg amputee, Eyser was most likely the first disabled athlete to compete in the Olympics. Despite his disability, Eyser excelled at gymnastics, walking away from the 1904 games with 6 medals. Eyser also held the distinction of being the only prosthesis wearer to compete in the Olympics for 104 years, with South African swimmer Natalie du Toit becoming the second in 2008.

The true beginnings of organised disability sports lay with Frenchman Eugène Rubens-Alcais. Eugene was both a keen sportsman and deaf, and throughout his life campaigned for the rights of the deaf community. After founding the Cycling Club of the Deaf and Dumb in 1899, and the Sports Federation of the Deaf and Dumb in 1918, Eugene organised the First International Silent Games in 1924. Held in Paris, the games were an equivalent of the Olympics designed specifically for deaf athletes, and the first officially recognised international games for athletes with a disability. Now known as the Deaflympics, the games were a first step for organised disability sports, and have been held every 4 years since the first games.

The next significant milestone is rooted in the fallout of the Second Word War. Dr Ludwig Guttman, who had fled the Nazis in 1939, was a neurologist based at the spinal injuries centre at Stoke Mandeville hospital, mostly treating veterans injured fighting in the war. Guttman believed that sport could be a therapeutic practice for those with spinal injuries, and as far back as 1945 was encouraging patients to participate in games. In 1948, Guttman organised the first Stoke Mandeville Games for amputees and wheelchair users. At first composed solely of just British participants, in the following years other countries began to participate, and the set of events grew larger, becoming the International Stoke Mandeville Games. By 1960, the Olympic Committee had begun to take note, and in that year the Stoke Mandeville games were held alongside the summer Olympics officially for the first time. This was to be a landmark for organised sport for the disabled, and the beginning of the Paralympics  although this name was used officially for the first time at the 1988 Seoul games.

With the foundation of the Paralympics, awareness of disability sport finally started to grow. With the increased recognition of achievements in this wider platform, opportunities for the disabled have widened into other areas. Outside the field of athletics, disabled motorsports has seen huge progress in the past 20 years. As recently as the 1980s, those with disabilities had been banned from circuit and touring car racing. However, with the establishment of the British Motor Sports Association for the Disabled in 1987, progress has been made, and racing competitions for the disabled now exist. Disabled drivers are now also just beginning to break into top flight competitions, competing alongside non-disabled drivers. Nicolas Hamilton, who has cerebral palsy, is set in June 2015 to compete in the British Touring Car Championships; the first disabled driver to do so.

In the past century, progress has been made to try make sure that the disabled are not barred from pursuing sporting goals and ambitions. However, the road to equality and recognition has by no mean been fully walked; something todays and tomorrows pioneers will make sure of.