Background to the Games

The Olympic Games were to be held in Munich in 1972. Dr Guttmann and the International Stoke Mandeville Games Committee (ISMGC) hoped to have the Paralympic Games hosted there too. Unfortunately, as with many of the Olympic host cities since Rome in 1960 and Tokyo in 1964, despite the efforts of Dr Guttmann and his committee it was not to be. The reason given was that City of Munich’s plan to convert the Olympic Village into private housing could not be changed, nor the timeline pushed back.  

So, an alternative location, at the suggestion of Walther Weiss (who was a German member of the ISMGC) was decided upon. The games would be held at Heidelberg. Heidelberg is located in the Baden-Württemburg state, and, incidentally, the games would coincide with the 15th anniversary of the state’s introduction to modern rehabilitation practices. 

Funding came for this year’s games from the Baden-Württemburg government, the German Bundestag, the Federal Government and also from German and American Forces. Additionally, several local organisations, businesses and individuals offered support.

The build-up to the Games

Logo

Logo for the 1972 Heidelberg Games showing a male wheelchair archer.

The logo for the Heidelberg 1972 Games was created from a photograph of a local unnamed archer. Image courtesy of Ian Brittain.

Poster

Poster advertising the 1972 Heidelberg Games

Poster advertising the Heidelberg 1972 Games. Image courtesy of Ian Brittain.

Changes to Events

The location in Heidelberg rather than Munich provided some difficulties for the Games that year.

Snooker and lawn bowls were not often played in Germany at that time so providing suitable space and equipment for the sports proved to be slightly problematic. However, resourceful organisers located a snooker table and put an artificial carpet down for the lawn bowls.

In Heidelberg a significant increase in participant numbers resulted in some changes in the Games. This was the first year for tetraplegic athletes to be included in the programme in several sports, which contributed to the increase in numbers. In order to facilitate the larger numbers, individual athletes were limited to participating in 6 individual events in addition to team events and each country was limited to 3 competitors per individual event.

This ultimately meant that there was a reduction in the number of athletes winning multiple medals. There were, however, some athletes who achieved this including Carol Bryant of the British team, who took home four gold and one bronze medals in athletics, fencing and table tennis, making her the second most successful athlete of the Games.  

Goalball, a sport for visually impaired players, was a demonstration sport.

Venues

The two venues used for the sporting events were not specifically built for the Games but proved rather suitable as the hosting locations; the sports ground of the Institute for Sports and Sports Science of the University of Heidelberg and the National Institute for Sport.

Illustration of the venue of the Heidelberg 1972 Games

Image of the venue courtesy of Ian Brittain.

  • 0 Entrance
  • 1 - 6 Shot Put, Discus and Javelin
  • 7 - 8 Precision Javelin
  • 9 Wheelchair Dash
  • 10 Archery
  • 11 Fencing
  • 12 Table Tennis
  • 13 Weightlifting
  • 14 Basketball
  • 15 Swimming
  • 16 Wheelchair Slalom
  • 17 Bowls
  • 18 Snooker
  • 19 Press Centre

The opening ceremony

The University of Heidelberg hosted the events, and the opening ceremony took place there in the sports ground on August 2nd.

The opening procession was led by the 9th Army Music Corps of the Airborne Division. The Games flag was carried by three athletes from Great Britain, Israel and the Federal Republic of Germany. The 42 nation teams followed, led by the British team – being the founding nation of the Games with the host nations’ team at the end of this procession.

Dr Guttmann and Eberhard Rosslenbroich, President of the German Disabled Sports Association (DSV), both gave welcome speeches to the audience. Gustav Heinemann, President of the Federal Republic of Germany and Patron of the Games, opened the ceremony, in his speech he declared that:

It is my sincere wish that the games that are about to begin may demonstrate to the world what sporting achievements those people are capable of, who have to live with a severe disability; also that they may contribute further towards ending the questionable classification of the disabled as a ‘fringe group’.

West German athlete Marga Flöer, who had won two gold medals in swimming at the last Games in Tel Aviv, took the Games’ Oath on behalf of all the athletes, in which she said:

In the name of all competitors I promise that we will take part in these games, abiding by the rules which govern them, in the true spirit of friendship, unity and sportsmanship for the glory of sport and the honour of our teams.

During the Games

Women wheelchair athletes in 1972, with matching dark blazers and white hats, lining up.

Wheelchair athletes in Games uniform ready for the Heidelberg 1972 Summer Paralympic Games.
Image courtesy of Margaret Maughan.

The athletes and their escorts stayed in the Rehabilitation Centre, which had 1200 beds for the event, while additional escorts stayed at a trade school located nearby.

The athletes were driven from the Centre to the Sports Ground via US Army buses – these had their seats removed to accommodate about 20 wheelchairs at a time.

These buses were also made available for other activities like sightseeing for the athletes – though this proved a little difficult due to the cobblestone streets which are quite unaccommodating for wheelchair users. 

The Heidelberg Games became known for the exciting social and cultural activity that surrounded the Games.

It was this year that the ‘Beer Tent’ was initiated. It was set up at the Rehabilitation Centre and was the place to be for evening entertainment for the athletes. There was an array of musical performances coming both from German bands and musicians from the competing teams – traditional German music, jazz, folk, and lively bongo sessions from the Brazilian team all filled the air of the beer tent in the evening. There was barbecued chicken and beer offered by the organisers. This relaxed communal area helped develop community connections and foster relationships between athletes of the participating nations. 

The Medals

Caz Walton
Caz Walton's 4 gold medals from the Heidelberg 1972 Paralympic Games. Image courtesy of Caz Walton.

The 1972 medals, like those of the Tel Aviv Games four years earlier, had the three interlocking wheels of the International Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Sports Federation. Each wheel represents a different value – friendship, unity and sportsmanship.

Medal statistics

Great Britain won 16 gold medals, 15 silver medals and 21 bronze medals, finishing 3rd of the 42 competing countries in the medal table.

Disclaimer
Information about the earlier Paralympic Games (1960-1988) is incomplete, and often contradictory across sources, therefore final results, medal standings and derived statistics may not be accurate. The data here is taken from the IPC Historical Results Archive, which is being reviewed by the IPC.

Prominent British Paralympic athletes

The British team did quite well this year at the Games – with the women leading the way in the number of medals won.

Black and white photo of Caz Walton and her winning medals at the 1972 Heidelberg Summer Paralympics

Carol Bryant with her 4 gold medals. Image courtesy of Caz Walton.

  • Carol Bryant (Caz Walton) was the top female athlete in the Games – she took home 4 gold and 1 bronze medals in athletics, fencing, table tennis and the pentathlon. 
    Over her Paralympic career Carol won ten gold medals – this makes her one of the most successful British athletes of all time. She was later (in 1996) the manager for the British Paralympic fencing team and in the 2004 Games she was Great Britain’s team administrator. In 1970 she received the Bill McGowran Trophy for Disabled Sports Personality of the Year from the Sports Journalists’ Association. In 2010 she was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for her dedication to Paralympic sport. Read more about Caz here
  • Barbara Howie won two individual and one relay gold medal in athletics. This was Barbara’s first Games, she is considered Scotland’s most successful wheelchair track athletics Paralympian.
  • Marion O’Brien took two gold, one silver and one bronze medal in athletics and table tennis.
  • Alan West won one gold and two silver medals in swimming.
  • Cyril Thomas took home a gold and bronze medal for fencing.

Media coverage at the event

The Games were covered by German television four times: twice as special item events and twice as sports and news items.  Two local newspapers – the Heidelberg Tageblatt and the Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung provided daily coverage of the Games. 

There was also a commemorative film in English and German produced by the Games’ organising committee – each participating nation received a copy after the Games.

The closing ceremony

The closing ceremony was held in the Marquee in the Games Village – this is where the entertainment had been held for the participants during the Games. The ceremony started at 7:30pm on Wednesday August 9th. After the presentation of awards for the athletes, there were speeches from several people. These included Walter Scheel (Vice-Chancellor and Minister for Foreign Affairs), Reinhold Zundel (Mayor of Heidelberg), and, of course, Dr Ludwig Guttmann – who announced the official ending of the Games.

There was also the International Gala Evening later that day with entertainment.   

References 

  • Brittain, I.S. (2012) From Stoke Mandeville to Stratford: A History of the Summer Paralympic Games. Champaign, Illinois: Common Ground Publishing.
  • Steve Bailey Athlete First: A History of the Paralympic Movement
  • https://www.paralympic.org/heidelberg-1972
  • https://www.bbc.com/timelines/zcmgv4j
  • https://wikivisually.com/wiki/Australia_at_the_1972_Summer_Paralympics#cite_note-:1-3
  • https://www.scottishdisabilitysport.com/barbara-howie/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caz_Walton
  • https://www.insidethegames.biz/articles/1010782/1972-heidelberg
  • https://wheelchairscanjump.com/rosters/WCJ_TR01_Paralympics-Men_A.pdf
  • http://minimalbelle.com/2017/09/09/the-1976-paralympics-a-personal-story/