Paralympic Games, 29 August to 9 September - We've come a long, long way together

Later this month the Paralympics return to the UK, where they were born in 1948. We must take this chance to create a legacy for young, talented disabled people, says Tanni Grey-Thompson

Tanni Grey-Thompson

As the 2012 Paralympic Games draw near, it is worth remembering that the disability sport movement grew out of discrimination and the exclusion of disabled people from mainstream competition. Even in fairly recent times, the inclusion of disabled people has been seen as beyond the capability of some sectors of sport. Young people with relatively minor levels of impairment have been told: "We don't work with people like you."

This is not the case for the 200 physically disabled young people aged between nine and 20 who attend Treloar's, a residential school and FE college in Alton, Hampshire. The youngest take part in swimming, aerobic dance and rebound therapy (modified trampolining). Secondary-age pupils add wheelchair basketball, hockey, football and archery, while boccia, a variation of boules, is a popular team sport for the oldest.

"Sport provides exercise and strengthens physique," says Dr Graham Jowett, a former principal of the college. "It promotes self-esteem and a sense of achievement and it encourages teamwork and personal development." The aims are the same in non-disabled sport.

Treloar's pupils are not wrapped in cotton wool and they are as competitive as any able-bodied group of young people. "You risk life and limb refereeing football with players in powered wheelchairs," says Jowett. "It is like being in the middle of a Formula One race."

All Treloar's pupils are looking forward to the Paralympic Games. Some have been torch-bearers in their home towns. Others will be "meeters and greeters" at Heathrow Airport when visiting teams arrive, and many have tickets for London 2012. Several of the school's staff and former pupils will compete as part of Team GB.

There has been much talk of the Paralympics "coming home" to the UK, but without the influence and efforts of one man, Sir Ludwig Guttmann, things might have been very different. Guttmann was born in 1899 to an Orthodox Jewish family in a part of eastern Germany that is now Poland. He began his medical studies in 1917. The following year he met his first patient with a spinal cord injury: this was to have a significant impact on his life.

Guttmann and his family left Germany and came to the UK in 1939. In 1944, he was asked by the British government to set up the National Spinal Injuries Centre in Stoke Mandeville, Buckinghamshire. Before then, the life expectancy of a person with a spinal cord injury was between two and seven years, depending on the level of injury. In reality, many patients were left in hospital because rehabilitation was not seen as viable or worthwhile. But in 1944, due to the increased demand for bed spaces to accommodate the large number of injured servicemen returning from the Second World War, a solution had to be found.

It was Guttmann who recognised that many Stoke Mandeville patients showed signs of competitiveness. This was considered unusual at the time; many thought such traits did not exist in people who were paralysed. The introduction of sport capitalised on this discovery. It was also useful, providing purposeful activity to fill recreational time and building up patients' strength to enable them to leave hospital and live in a largely physically inaccessible world.

Guttmann's Stoke Mandeville Games for the disabled were founded in 1948 for 16 ex-members of the British forces. The first overseas team, from the Netherlands, arrived in 1952 and by 1954 the Games had grown to welcome more than 130 competitors from 14 nations.

His vision of equivalence to the Olympic Games was realised in 1960, when the International Stoke Mandeville Games were held in Rome shortly after the Summer Olympics. Known at the time as the 9th Annual International Stoke Mandeville Games, the Rome event is now recognised as the first Paralympic Games, although that title was not applied until 1984, when the International Olympic Committee sanctioned its use.

As one might expect, many significant changes have taken place over time, both in the number of countries that participate and in the range of competitive events on the programme. Although originally intended just for wheelchair users, the categories have widened considerably and the participation of women has markedly increased.

After what was perceived as a disastrous Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996, where the British team won just a single gold medal through rowers Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent, the Lottery Act was changed to allow funding to go towards capital projects and towards realising the performance development plans of the National Governing Bodies of Sport. The Paralympic team finished a respectable fourth in its medal table, yet the profile of the athletes and the support they received was significantly less than that of able-bodied competitors.

But the new funding brought about change. Lottery support meant it was possible to push harder for the integration of disability programmes within their mainstream counterparts. Although it was sometimes easy to underestimate the professionalism of stand-alone Paralympic sport, with its access to sports science programmes and a strong international calendar, many believed it was better to form a closer alignment with mainstream sport.

A significant development for the Paralympic movement came in 2005 with the bidding for the 2012 Olympic Games. The International Olympic Committee decided that any city that sought to host the Olympic Games should also host the Paralympics. Gone were the years of negotiation, frustration and uncertainty: the Paralympics had a guaranteed future.

Now that the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games are on home soil in London, we have a chance to push integration even further, from elite level all the way down to school, club and grass-roots sport. We have an opportunity to create a positive pathway for future generations of talented disabled athletes, and to allow and encourage all disabled children to have access to lifelong health and fitness.

I hope all schools will play their part, not only through effective provision for their own disabled pupils, but also by opening their sporting facilities to the disabled in the local community, promoting sporting events for the disabled and forging links with sports clubs for the disabled. Treloar's shows what can be achieved; it would be a truly Olympian legacy if all disabled pupils got the same sporting chance.

Baroness Grey-Thompson competed at five Paralympic Games. She is vice- chair of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games Athletes' Committee. She has contributed to the book Physical Education and Sport in Independent Schools, edited by Malcolm Tozer (see pages 36-37)


The TES Paralympics collection is full of resources celebrating sporting achievement.

Key stage 1: Flash sports

Help pupils to remember the Paralympics with flashcards by lbrowne.

Key stage 2: Ludwig Guttmann

Discover the founder of the Paralympics (pictured below) with this case study from HolocaustMemorialDayTrust.

Key stage 3: Sporting stars

Use tadolpho's presentation to teach pupils about disability rights and the sporting world.

Key stage 4: die Paralympischen Spiele

Introduce the history and sports of the Games in German with petermorris2001's activity.

Key stage 5: Blade runner

Try Spire's inspiring assembly about Oscar Pistorius (pictured below), a double-amputee competing against able-bodied athletes at London 2012.

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Tanni Grey-Thompson

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