Page last updated at 08:10 GMT, Thursday, 18 September 2008 09:10 UK

Paralympics 'truly coming home'

By Vanessa Barford
BBC News

school children parade
200 children carried flags from 147 countries in the procession

As the Paralympic flag was handed from China to London in Beijing, celebrations were also under way in Stoke Mandeville, Bucks, where the first games for athletes using wheelchairs were hosted in 1948.

In one of many celebrations around the UK, as the countdown to the closing ceremony began, a parade of 200 children carrying flags from 147 countries bustled down Stoke Mandeville Stadium's athletic track to a burst of music.

About 50 veteran Paralympians followed, some wearing medals, alongside aspiring competitors for 2012.

They gathered at one end of the track, directly in front of Stoke Mandeville Hospital.

It was on the hospital's lawn, 60 years ago, that Dr Ludwig Guttmann - a neurologist who set up Stoke Mandeville's Spinal Injuries Unit in 1944 - held a competition for 16 British war veterans with spinal injuries as part of a rehabilitation programme.

He passionately believed that his patients, with the right help and support, could lead fulfilling lives.

Early sports included archery, bowls, darts and skittles, and the event coincided with the opening of the Olympic Games in London.

Over the next decade it grew, and in 1960 an Olympic-style Games for 400 disabled athletes was held for the first time in Rome.

'Life back'

Paralympians, school children and Paralympian hopefuls gathered outside Stoke Mandeville hospital
The crowd gathered on the field track outside Stoke Mandeville hospital

On Wednesday, as the crowd watched live coverage from Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium - where a 206-strong British team had won 102 medals - on a big screen, cheers erupted as they were told the Paralympics were "truly coming home".

The birthplace of the Paralympic movement clearly had a very special place in the hearts of the spectators.

John Harris, who competed in five Paralympic Games, winning a gold for discus in 1984, said Stoke Mandeville "gave him back his life".

He was paralysed at the age of 18 after falling 50ft (18m) from a fairground ride, "spent five months in hospital and then wasted the next three years in the pub".

After training with body builders at a local gym, he joined a paraplegic sports club. One year later, he was selected for Wales.

But he said the Paralympics were very different back then.

Like barracks

"When I came to train at Stoke Mandeville, about 20 of us lived in huts. It was like army barracks; we just had two toilets. But it was a tremendous atmosphere and I made lifelong friends."

The veteran Paralympian, who has also completed a marathon, raised 50,000 for a sports centre and presented a radio programme, said he would not change his life and had "no regrets whatsoever".

"I can't change light bulbs and I can't run for the bus, but I have had a terrific life," he said.

He said most people who have accidents which result in spinal injuries are between 18 and 25. But the media had helped change the perception of disabilities.

John Harris and Kevan Baker
John Harris and Kevan Baker became lifelong friends at the Paralympics
"People had no idea what we could do, only what we couldn't do. Now the Paralympics is on TV, it has shown people's personalities. Children are seeing 'superstars' who they can look up to."

Kevan Baker, who is chairman of Wheelpower, British Wheelchair Sport, and has been a paraplegic since a road accident in 1979, said when people have a spinal injury accident "they believe they have no life".

Sport enables people to forget about their wheelchair, he said.

But the former discus world record holder said that as the Paralympics had become more "well-established - like the able-bodied world," it had been made tougher for competitors, sometimes taking about seven years to become a Paralympic athlete.

'Life-changing'

One British hopeful who has hit eyes firmly set on London 2012 is Steve Brown. He broke his neck two years ago when he was 25 after falling from a balcony.

He spent four months in Stoke Mandeville hospital, participating in archery and shooting competitions towards the end.

Steve  Brown
Steve Brown, 27, wants to compete in the 2012 Paralympics
Now he is training in the GB wheelchair rugby squad and is "very hopeful" for the next Paralympics, having just missed out on Beijing.

"I love rugby; it was life-changing. I have never been more dedicated about anything. It dictates what I eat, where I sleep - I train 25-30 hours a week. It really helped with my self-confidence too."

Mr Brown said he spends about 12,000 a year on the sport - which included 5,000 on a custom made sports wheelchair.

He said anyone who had a life-changing accident should play sport because "it's motivational and creates goals and challenges".

"It shouldn't have taken me to lose two-thirds of my body movement to want to live life to the full - but it did," he added.

As the ceremony in Stoke Mandeville continued, three ex-Paralympians and three 2012 hopefuls hoisted three flags - including a specially-commissioned 60th anniversary flag.

Nick Fuller, head of Education at the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (Locog), said: "It's great to see ex-Paralympians and young 2012 hopefuls, and critically school children, being brought into the heart of the celebrations."

The organisation has launched a "Get Set" education programme, which its chairman, Sebastian Coe, said he hoped would "inspire children and young people through the London 2012 Games".

In Stoke Mandeville, the most visible excitement and vigorous flag waving from the children came on the arrival of a huge, 18 inch square cake.

But as the crowd assembled between the hospital where Dr Ludwig Guttmann had worked, and Stoke Mandeville Stadium, the national centre for disability sport and successor to the 1964 sports centre the retired doctor raised money to build, his daughter said she felt incredibly proud.

"He had a great vision - and this is what he would have expected to see," said Mrs Eva Loeffler.


SEE ALSO
Paralympic baton passed to London
17 Sep 08 |  Paralympics
Stoke Mandeville given 2012 boost
06 Mar 08 |  Paralympics
History of the Paralympics
04 Sep 08 |  Paralympics
Why the Paralympic World Cup matters
06 May 08 |  Paralympics

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