The Story Of Ludwig Guttmann, the Paralympics, and Modern-Day Wheelchair Racing

Wheelchair racing is a relatively new sporting event, but its history stretches long before the first race ever took place. The sport owes its origins to a German-born doctor who wanted to change the world for paraplegics, to aspiring competitors with other impairments, and to engineers who turned the first clunky wheelchairs into aerodynamic racing machines. 

Who Was Ludwig Guttmann?

In 1899, Ludwig Guttmann was born in Germany to an Orthodox Jewish family. Guttmann was interested in medicine from a very early age, and when he turned 18, he began volunteering at the local coal miners' hospital. One coal mining patient forever changed Guttmann; involved in an on-the-job accident, this patient was permanently paralyzed after breaking his back. The hospital all but gave up on this patient, and Guttmann discovered that staff members had transferred the patient out of the ward and left to die. The patient developed severe urinary tract infections and sepsis, and died five weeks later. Guttmann was so touched and bothered by the hospital's complete lack of humanity toward this patient that he was never again the same. 

Years later, the Nazi occupation left Guttmann, an openly Jewish doctor, no choice but to emigrate out of Germany. With his family in tow, Guttmann continued his practice in Great Britain. His memories of the young coal miner did not fade, and so after the war, Guttmann dedicated his life to helping parapalegic soldiers regain a new-found quality of life. Before Guttmann, paraplegics' disabilities were essentially death sentences.

In 1948, he introduced an event that would forever change the lives of paraplegics: the Stoke Mandeville Games

The Stoke Mandeville Games

Guttmann unveiled the first Stoke Mandeville Games during the Olympic Games, which was hosted in London that year. The 1948 Stoke Mandeville Games was just the beginning; it was hosted every four years, with participation and spectatorship increasing each and every time. In 1960, the event was renamed the Paralympic Games. Guttmann originally designed the games to bring international dignity to paraplegics, but the event was expanded so that people with other disabilities and impairments—physical, intellectual, and visual—could also compete. This brought even more attention and celebration to the Paralympic Games.

The Debut of Wheelchair Racing

The inaugural 1960 Rome Paralympic Games featured eight different categories, including "Athletics," which was limited to field events like shot put and javelin. In the 1964 Tokyo Games, wheelchair racing made its debut in the forms of a 60-meter dash and a relay race. The original wheelchairs used were bulky and could not withstand rigorous races at longer distances.

The pioneers of wheelchair racing would not be held back, however. Wheelchairs were specifically designed, tweaked, and improved so that racers could go faster, farther, and longer. One such pioneer, Rainer Kuschall, participated in nearly every wheelchair race distance that the Games introduced, including the marathon. He retired with 21 Paralympic medals. 

Wheelchair racing also expanded beyond the Paralympic Games. In 1975, the Boston Marathon officially allowed its first wheelchair racer to participate alongside the runners. This racer, named Bob Hall, inspired many other people with physical impairments to follow his example. The Boston Marathon was the first renown marathon to introduce a wheelchair racing class, and over the years, many other world-class races added similar divisions. 

Today, wheelchair racing has grown into a highly competitive and internationally recognized event. Specially-made wheelchairs are the pinnacle of speed and durability; it is not uncommon for wheelchair racers to exceed 50 miles per hour! Talk to a professional like Neergaard Pharmacies for more information.