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The Paralympics’ Jewish Roots

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The competitive spirit of this year’s Summer Games in London did not end with the Closing Ceremony. From August 29 – September 9, 2012, thousands of athletes with physical disabilities will take over London’s Olympic Park for the 2012 Paralympics. These amazing athletes can credit this grand event, and indeed an entirely new philosophy in dealing with physical disabilities (particularly spinal injuries), to a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany.

Sir Dr. Ludwig Guttmann (1899 – 1980), a native German, believed, at first, that the Nazis were a temporary departure from the norm. After he was prohibited from working in public hospitals in 1933, he immediately accepted the position of director of the neurological/neurosurgical department at the Breslau Jewish hospital. It was not until after Kristallnacht (1938), after he was forced to justify the admission of 64 patients to the hospital following the beginning of deportations, that Dr. Guttmann realized he had to leave Germany.

In England, a paper by Dr. Guttmann was influential in the creation of the Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, a unique institute for dealing with spinal cord injuries. As the director, Dr. Guttmann took a holistic approach to helping those with spinal injuries. Dr. Guttmann showed the injured that they could use their bodies in new ways.

The athletics that were a natural part of Dr. Guttmann’s rehabilitation program soon became recreational for his patients. On July 29, 1948, the same day as the opening of the 1948 London Olympics, Dr. Guttmann oversaw the first Stoke-Mandeville Games. Sixteen injured soldiers competed in archery. Four years later, Dutch soldiers participated, making the games international. The Stoke-Mandeville games continued to shadow the Summer Olympics. The 1960 games in Rome are formally recognized as the first Paralympics, as the competition was open to veterans and civilians alike. The winter Paralympics began in 1976. Since 1988, the Paralympics have been held in the same city as, and  immediately following, the Olympics.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

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