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July 29, 2012 2:34 am

Moses of the Olympics, Sir Ludwig Guttmann

avatar by Yossi Goldstein

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Oscar Pistorius. Photo: Kastom.

Through the glorious grandeur that is the Modern Day Olympiad, and, more specifically so, its Opening Ceremony, the world as a whole recently embarked on what is sure to be a fun-filled and exciting next couple of athletics-viewing weeks.

There are subplots and storylines mentioned and forgotten, yet, there is one person that stands head-and-shoulders above all others, as a man among mortals, whose lack of recognition in the mass media is reproachable.

This would be high time to commend NBC broadcaster, Bob Costas, for displaying and sharing his personal Moment of Silence, in memory of the murdered Israeli National Team members who fell victim to terrorism at the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, Germany.

This came after weeks of the victims’ family members pleading with the International Olympic Committee chief, Jacques Rogge, who refused to do the same as Costas, albeit under the Olympic banner, this past Friday night at the Opening Ceremony of the 10th Summer Games since the Munich Massacre.

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The Moment of Silence hoopla however, isn’t the focus of this article. Who I would like to highlight, is the Father of the Paralympics, Sir Ludwig Guttmann whose legacy has barely been recognized in the media.

What’s made the modern Olympics such a resounding success isn’t the supremacy of the talented athletes we observe on television. It’s that those who are gifted, though unfortunately aren’t able to always express that gift in the same manner as their able-bodied counterparts, are still able to compete for Olympic glory, even if it’s in their own manner.

The popularity of the Games since the establishment of their modern day incarnation at the 1896 Summer Games in Athens, Greece, is partly due to Guttmann. There have been, and currently are, former Paralympians who have successfully made the transition to join their colleagues in the mainstream Olympic Games. For athletes ranging from New Zealand archer, Neroli Fairhall, to blind US marathon runner Marla Runyan, and South African sprinter, Oscar Pistorius, to mention a few, competing in the Olympics would not have been possible for these had it not been for the visionary Guttmann.

When Dr. Guttmann received his medical diploma from the University of Freiburg in 1924, he had no idea of the journey on which he was about to set out, nor the lasting world impact his voyage would have.

The now-deceased Guttmann was posthumously honored earlier this month at the United Kingdom’s House of Lords for his achievement in founding the Paralympics. A bust of Sir Ludwig, which was unveiled at the House ceremony, will be taken to all future Paralympics.

“I tried to capture his upright manner and passion,” explained sculptor Mark Jackson, a former soldier wounded in a parachuting accident, and creator of Guttmann’s bust. “I also wanted to give his eyes that kindness he always displayed.”

Born in 1899 in Tost, Germany (present day Poland), Guttmann was a pioneering neuroscientist who believed, according to his philosophy, that “sport was a method for therapy, by utilizing it to help build physical strength and self-respect.” With this ideology, many patients that, as director of the National Spines Injuries Center at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire, passed through his doors were able to bring a semblance of normalcy to their lives through competitive competition.

“Without Sir Ludwig believing in what disabled people can do, I, along with thousands of other athletes, would never have had a career in sport,” explained 11-time Paralympic Gold Medal winner, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson.

Fleeing to England in 1939 after conditions in Nazi Germany became unbearable for Jews, Guttmann worked as a researcher in neurosurgery, until he was asked to help found the National Spinal Injuries Center at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital, where he later acted as its director.

Enacted shortly after he became the hospital’s director, the Stoke Mandeville Games grew to over 130 international competitors by 1952. These “Games” continued to impress the international community, and in 1956 Sir Ludwig was awarded the Fearnley Cup, an award granted for outstanding contribution towards the Olympic Ideal.

Although Guttmann never heard the term “Paralympics” used to describe his creation, as it was only put into use prior to the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, the idiomatic term was retroactively used to label the 1960 Rome Games as being the first Paralympic Games.

“My father had a dream that there would be an Olympics for people with disabilities,” said his daughter Eva Guttmann-Loeffler. “His legacy is the more than four thousand athletes who are taking part in this year’s London Games.”

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  • Michael Nicholson

    My dad was in Stoke Mandeville in the 1970’s, having broken his back. I was only young and we visited every weekend for a couple of years. To look at it was nothing but a collection of huts with corridors between them, a main one running down a slope. There were constant wheelchair races (officially banned) down it, many just on the large back wheels. The memories I have of this place are the highly polished lino floors, the general cheeriness (most of the time) and above all the sense of hope. I never knew about the man behind it all until today, when I heard about a new BBC drama “Best of Men” on the radio whilst driving home from work, Sir Ludwig hardly seems enough and why the hell isn’t this taught in schools.

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