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Birthplace of the Paralympics

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Stoke Mandevillle Stadium is now the The National Centre for Disability Sport

By Rita Monjardino
BBC London

As London prepares to host the Paralympics in 2012, we look back to the summer of 1948 when the Stoke Mandeville Games were first held and gave birth to a sports movement for the disabled.

For those involved in disability sport, the London 2012 Games will be of particular significance.

It was not far from the capital, in the summer of 1948, 60 years ago, that the forerunner to the Paralympics, the Stoke Mandeville Games were first held.

The Games could not have been more different from the international event they have become today. On July 29th, 16 paralysed ex-serviceman gathered on the lawn of Stoke Mandeville Hospital to take part in the first ever Stoke Mandeville Games.

In a decision, that was to prove very significant, they were held to coincide with the opening of the Olympic Games in London. The beginning of the sports movement for the disabled had begun.

The games in Aylesbury were the idea of Dr Ludwig Guttmann, seen by many as the founding father of the paralympic movement. Dr Guttmann, a neurologist, who had fled Nazi Germany to Britain, set up Stoke Mandeville's Spinal Injuries Unit in 1944.

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

"Paraplegia is not the end of the way. It is the beginning of a new life," he once said. And sport played a very important role in achieving that goal - both physically and psychologically.

Stoke Mandevillle
The intention was to treat injured servcemen

Sport as rehabilitation

The unit had originally been created to treat severely injured World War Two servicemen.

Early sports included darts, billiards and skittles. Team sports soon followed such as polo and basketball.

As Dr Guttmann later recalled: "At first I used sporting activity as a kind of recreation but I found very soon that it can play a very important part as a complementary to the usual methods of physiotherapy."

He also found that sport had a very positive psychological effect, "Nothing can produce more activity of mind, apart from work and employment, but sport."

The 'wheelchair Olympics' in Rome

After the first event in 1948, the hospital continued to host the Stoke Mandeville Games every year during the last week of July. As the event grew in popularity, more and more competitors from all over Europe became involved.

In 1960, the year of the Rome Olympics, Dr Guttmann travelled to the Italian capital with 400 wheelchair athletes from several countries. Although officially known as the 9th Annual International Stoke Mandeville Games, the competition we have come to know as the Paralympics was born.

Stoke Mandeville Stadium today

Today, more than 60 years after the first games were held on the lawn of the neighbouring hospital, stands Stoke Mandeville stadium, the national centre for disability sport.

Tanni Grey Thompson
Some of Britain's most famous athletes with disabilities have benefited from its facilities
Rita Monjardino
BBC London

Its facilities include a pool, running track and field, tennis courts and bowls centre. Some of Britain's most famous athletes with disabilities have benefited from its facilities. Among them are Paralympic gold medallists, Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, David Weir, and Lloyd Upsdell.

However, the centre remains very much a grass roots organization aimed at making sport accessible to anyone, whatever their level. Martin McElhatton, the chief executive of WheelPower, which owns the stadium is passionate advocate of the importance of sport.

He says: "One of the most important things for our young disabled people is that they have opportunities to get into sport. They often don't get to hear about the opportunities that are available to them, through organisations like Wheelpower in terms of sport, particularly children in mainstream education."

The Amputee Games

Stoke Mandevillle
Sport plays a big role in improving people's lives

The 70 or so participants who recently took part in the Amputee Games at Stoke Mandeville all agree that sport has played an important role in improving their quality of life.

Mike Stoneman, a father of four and an amputee below the knee, had never tried some of the sporting events available at the Amputee Games.

Mike says: "It improves your confidence and actually coping with limb loss, it's often about attitude and being very positive and if you're feeling good in yourself and sport helps you do that then you cope much better with amputation."

For Ergun Ahmed, from north London who lost both his legs below the knee after contracting meningitis, playing a sport has helped him enormously:

"I used to look down at the ground as I used to walk and the physios used to say don't look down, look up, so I thought if I took up a racket sport like badminton I will be looking up and that really helped me out on my rehabilitation with the process of my balance and my everyday life."

The legacy of Dr Guttmann is clearly still very much at the heart of the movement he helped found in Aylesbury 60 years ago.

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