A look back at a turning point in Paralympic history

Author: Steve Katon, 27th April 2023

Professor Sir Ludwig Guttmann, known as the father of the Paralympic Games, once made a pledge:

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 doors are closed to them.

Dr Guttmann was undoubtedly a visionary who changed perceptions of how patients with spinal injuries could be treated and what those individuals could go on to achieve, but one wonders if even he knew how prophetic his words would be.

Prince Charles meeting members of the British team, including Caz Walton and John Harris at the 1984 Paralympics. 
Image ©WheelPower.

In 1977, when Los Angeles was selected as the host city for the 1984 Olympics, Ben Lipton the chair of the American National Wheelchair Athletics Association (NWAA) led a bid for the USA to host a Games for wheelchair athletes only. One of the reasons the NWAA gave for the segregation was they did not believe that Paralympians would receive social benefits by being ‘forced’ to interact with those of different disabilities. This decision led to many questions and criticisms, but arrangements began to host a Wheelchair Games at the University of Illinois, with a separate event for other disabilities taking place in New York.

The University of Illinois had a long tradition of wheelchair sports with world class facilities and huge stadia. Despite the segregation question, a tremendous event for wheelchair athletes was promised. The only issue was that before accepting the invitation to host the Games, The University stated it would not be involved in any fundraising nor accept any debt from hosting the Games.

Tony Sainsbury, Team Manager, leading the British team at the opening ceremony of the 1984 Stoke Mandeville Games

Team GB at the opening ceremony. Image ©Tony Sainsbury

Paralympic Games take several years to plan, so it was a tremendous shock when, due to funding issues, the University of Illinois withdrew their offer to host, only four months before the Games were scheduled to start. As Dr Guttmann had prophesied, the doors for disabled athletes had been slammed firmly shut, so what could be done? Undaunted, Stoke Mandeville, with its existing sports stadium and Olympic village, offered to save the day.

The Games’ move to Stoke Mandeville was agreed in March 1984, with the beginning ceremony, opened by Charles, who was Prince of Wales at the time, scheduled for the 22nd July. Is it any wonder these became known as ‘the last-minute Paralympics’? This was a turning point in the history of the Paralympic Games and now the Games are always held two weeks after the Olympics and in the same city.

Through adversity great stories are made. Over the next few blogs, I will tell you about how the money was found, how the venues and accommodation were organised (if you think having an Olympic village in place removed any headaches here, then think again) as well as many other memorable stories from the National Paralympic Heritage Trust’s archives.

The Paralympic Games is a local story and one that depended for its success on the people living in the communities in this area. The National Paralympic Heritage Trust recognise the historic community effort of local people in bringing the world the Paralympic Games.