Stoke Mandeville 1984 - The last-minute Paralympics

The sports stadium at Stoke Mandeville had opened in 1969. It was now 15 years old and far too small for an Olympic venue.
Paul Cartwright
Icelandic team
"This is Prince Charles laughing as he is leaving the games, in response to a comment I made to him about whether he would be competing this year. His detective in the middle was bit grumpy. I had my hand behind my back because I was holding one of those enormous early mobile phones, so he was very suspicious of that and wanted me to keep my hands out front where he could see them."
Douglas Joss
Stoke Mandeville Stadium track
R King

“I remember being called into a meeting with the Chair of the District Council. He must have said something like, “The Americans have let us down. You’ve got three months to sort it out; 60 countries will be involved. Are you happy to take this on? You can forget out your main job for the while, just concentrate on this.” Douglas, games organiser

1984 was a difficult year. The USA as the Olympic host nation was intending to stage the Paralympics wheelchair games at Champaign, Illinois. Then with just four months notice the organiser,  the University of Illinois, pulled out due to financial difficulties. To save the day Stoke Mandeville offered to host the games instead.

“I had been to Champaign Illinois earlier in the year as part of the planning process. The facilities there were absolutely world class. There were 66,000 resident students (the university site was a small town in its own right) and people went there on athletics scholarships. The basketball stadium seated 35,000 people; the athletics stadium could fit 70,000; their track had ten lanes whereas ours at Stoke only had six. How were we going to match all that?” Keith, games organiser

What Stoke Mandeville did already have was 35 years experience of organising and hosting national and international games. The sports stadium had been built in 1969 and a decade later the ‘Olympic’ village had opened. Guttmann speaking at that opening, had declared “We will build a sports stadium and an Olympic village so that the disabled athletes of the world will always have their own Olympic facilities here at Stoke Mandeville when other facilities are closed to them”. But perhaps he hadn’t actually anticipated this offer being taken up just five years later.

“OK, Stoke Mandeville might not have been the best place in the world. Of course there were larger and better-equipped stadiums, but in the end when it came to finding a way of staging the Paralympics at such short notice, this was the only place in the world that could have done it. It was the only place with the staff, the networks, the attitude and belief of the people there, born from those years of staging the National Games and the “Inters” – this huge history of putting on big games – that could possibly have pulled it off. No one else could have done it.” John, athlete

Making It Happen

“We had to arrange the embassy receptions and the stadium seating plan for about 40 different countries. It was very important that we got it right. I remember my wife helping me do it on large sheets of paper on the dining room floor because it was so big. Somehow they all had to be fitted into the central 300 seat stadium and we had to try and make sure each country was equally and fairly positioned. I remember there were all sorts of minor diplomatic problems; the Egyptian representative was Admiral Latif and we could never really find out just how many of his wives or his extended family he was expecting to bring with him. Then there was a real problem with the USA. All of the participating nations would have their flag flying on a separate pole at one side of the sports ground. At the last minute we discovered that the Stars and Stripes flag they had supplied was considerably larger than all the other nations and we had to go round Aylesbury buying flags for all the others of the same size so the difference wouldn’t show.” Rob, organiser

“We had a bit of money to spend on the track and other facilities, but it was mostly cosmetic. In the end we knew that this is what we’ve got and we would just have to make the best of it.” Keith, games organiser

The British Paraplegic Sports Society took a huge risk when they offered up Stoke Mandeville as the replacement venue. The logistical challenge was enormous. At the games site specialist buildings and improvements to the sports field had to be put in place. Heathrow airport provided the organisers with a free office for five days to oversee the arriving teams while a dozen ex-Leicester city buses were purchased and, with their seats removed, used as competitor transport. There were five different companies contracted just to maintain and repair the wheelchairs. IBM donated computers and operators for the scoring; BT laid on miles of additional telephone cables and their engineers came out voluntarily to wire up the switchboards; the courtesy cars were blagged from the organisers of Wimbledon, which had fortunately just finished.

“We mopped up all the hotels in town, all the schools, all the church halls. Just about anywhere you could fit beds into, we took it over.” Keith, games organiser

One and a half thousand wheelchair athletes and officials from 43 nations were never going to fit into the existing ‘Olympic village’. Some slept in hospital beds on the wards; others were distributed out to Mandeville School (Japanese team), the local agricultural college (Israeli team) and RAF Halton camp (American team); games officials ended up further afield in Thame and High Wycombe. Smaller national teams might stay in the spare rooms of local people’s homes with their coaches and trainers camped in the garden. The Icelandic team, seen opposite, stayed with Rob and Mavis King at their house in Stoke Mandeville.

“The GB team stayed at William Harding School in Aylesbury and I remember we couldn’t use the school toilets (we being disabled and the loos being very small ) and we had to wait a couple of days for the portaloos to be delivered!” Martin, athlete

“In the early days we just used to put out a few chairs at the edge of the field, but after 1974 we started hiring a portable grandstand; as more and more foreign dignitaries were attending we had to improve things. For 1984 we had the covered stand you can see and two open stands, one on each side of it. You can see the dais where the VIPs opening the games would stand – in this instance Prince Charles; on the left the games flag is flying and in the background you can see the flags of all the participating nations.” Rob, games organiser

“I was a girl guide just like the girl in this photo. I carried the Great Britain name at the opening ceremony of the World Wheelchair Games two years after this, in 1986. A cadet from RAF Halton carried the flag behind. I remember it so well because I fainted on the track whilst carrying it, but the cadet didn’t stop to help me, he had to carry on, stepping round me, as he wasn’t allowed to put the flag down!” Morwenna, volunteer

Aylesbury: ‘Olympic town’

“There was no real question of security back then. There were no guards or anything like that, just a few local police about. All the different teams just milled about in Aylesbury; you could tell when you heard them speaking that they were from all over the world; the place was full of wheel chairs for the fortnight; and some people were even getting about on little horizontal carts.” Douglas, games organiser

Aylebury District Council had declared that Aylesbury would be the ‘Olympic’ town and local businesses stepped up to the challenge. Otis Lifts paid for the daily newspaper, “Pursuit” that was published throughout the games. The Aylesbury department store, Narbeths, run by a Welshman, Mr Jones, organised a Welsh choir concert while Marks and Spencers organised a local fashion show, both as fundraisers for the games.

“Prior to the Games in 1984, there were no or very few dropped kerbs in Aylesbury and it was very difficult for people in wheelchairs to get around.  I wrote to the County Council and asked for dropped kerbs to be put in in time for the Games, and we got them as  a result!” Douglas, games organiser

The full transcript of the interviews with Keith, Douglas and Bob are available to read and download. 

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