The paralympic myth dispelled

Dineo Tshosa
Tuesday, 22 May 2018
Paralympian Keatlaretse Mabote Paralympian Keatlaretse Mabote

So, I asked my friend if his brother with cerebral palsy does not wish to participate in sport and her response was that her brother is not able to do any sport because they move him around on a wheelchair. I didn’t reach a pistol and shot her out of frustration because I somehow understood where she was coming from, which is a state of mind where most Batswana are currently in.

 Therefore, I took my sweet time to explain to her the options available in sports for someone with cerebral palsy. It seems that there is myth in our country that the only option in sport available for paraplegics is basketball and that the cerebral palsied have no place in sports. I will be exposing all the lies about the Paralympic games and giving you the naked truth, which I hope it will also address the next question that I often get: what is the difference between Special Olympics and Paralympics? I am very much aware of the damage that our good culture has done and that most of the current predicaments that persons with disability face in sports emanates from our culture. 

Because I believe that my friend is not the only one with a loved one that is living with disability as the figures indicate that there are more than fifty thousand people living with disabilities in Botswana which means that most of us either have a family member living with disability or we just know someone from our neighbourhood or village. Paralympics deal with physical disability whileSpecial Olympics focus on mental disability. Vision 2016 demanded that we should be an informed nation at this stage but it seem information is not reaching the stakeholders as far as disability sport is concerned. 

Therefore, I am going to stand on the gap between Motswana at home and disability sport. My submission is that sport is a basic human right and therefore there is an element of seriousness that it demands hence we cannot continue to pretend that it is not a critical issue when people are not aware of the options they have in sport. 

I believe we can only dispel the myth or should I say ignorance with facts. On today’s issue we will look at the Paralympic Games and we will cover the other sports on the next editions. I will start with the basic history of the Paralympic Movement so that we get to fully appreciate it. The Paralympic Games started as physical disability sport. It evolved from a rehabilitation therapy that was administered to the World War II veterans at Stoke Mandeville hospital in the UK until it is what is now known as the Paralympic Games. During the World War period, soldiers normally suffered spinal cord injuries and most of them could not survive for more than three years thereafter. It was until the German-Jewish neurologist, Dr. Ludwig Guttmann was appointed by the British government to head the National Spinal Injuries Unit at the Stoke Mandeville hospital in 1943 that the situation changed for the paraplegics. Together with his family, Dr. Guttmann had fled from the Nazis in Germany and settled in Oxford where he worked at Oxford University when he received the call to work at the hospital.

 His job at the hospital was to specialize in the rehabilitation therapy for the war veterans who sustained spinal cord injuries. Dr. Guttmann accepted the offer despite criticism from his colleagues who could not understand how someone can leave a university job for the lowly job of dealing with spinal cord injured veterans who at that time were considered to be worthless. Dr .Guttmann proposed that the condition for accepting the Stoke Mandeville offer was that he would be allowed to administer the rehabilitation therapy in his own terms without following any prescribed methods from the state. Perceiving the value of sport, the good doctor introduced sport as a tool for rehabilitating the veterans. 

Literature is silent about the use of sport as a rehabilitation tool for people living with disabilities prior to World War II, especially with regards to those with spinal cord injuries. It was after the war that medical practitioners started to consider alternative ways of treating soldiers who were injured during the war in order to address not only the physical injuries but also the emotional trauma suffered in the process. Dr. Guttmann tried different sports such as darts, snooker, punch-ball, skittles and wheelchair polo.

 Wheelchair polo was short lived as it was considered to be dangerous to the patients and it was substituted by wheelchair netball which progressed to the now current wheelchair basketball which most Batswana are familiar with and thinks is the only alternative available to the paraplegic. The breakthrough for Dr. Guttmann was the introduction of archery as a rehabilitation therapy. Not only did this sport serve as a rehabilitation tool but also marked the inaugural of the Paralympic Games.  Archery was not only significant in strengthening the upper body muscles that were important in order for the paraplegic to maintain an upright posture but it was also a sport that could be played by both persons with disabilities and non-disabled. 

This meant that the two groups could even compete together under similar conditions. This integration helped to showcase that people with spinal cord injuries can also equally do the things that the people without disabilities can do contrary to beliefs of that time that they could not do any sport.  This move saw archery teams being formed at Stoke Mandeville hospital and they competed with different able bodied archery teams outside the hospital. These competitions became instrumental in breaking down the dividing walls and bridging the gap between the general public and people living with disabilities. It also facilitated the paraplegic to easily integrate into society once discharged from the Stoke Mandeville hospital as they could then join the able-bodies archery clubs at their respective places of residence. 

The rest of Great Britain copied the therapeutic procedure for spinal cord patient leading to the formation of more archery teams such that National Games were then instituted and eventually international archery games. The first Paraplegic Games took place in 1948 between two hospital teams and the Games grew such that within three years eleven hospitals in England participated in the competition. 

I am here wondering that if this rehabilitation therapy worked and is working for the British and other countries, can someone please enlighten me why we do not have at least just one archery team for persons with physical disabilities in Botswana? Anyway, that is a conversation for another day; let us get back to the history lesson for now. 

The first Paraplegic Games as they were known at the time were coincidently held on the same date as the official opening ceremony of the Olympic Games that were also held in London, thirty-five miles from the Stoke Mandeville hospital. It is not known if the date for the Paraplegic Games was purposively set on the same date as the official opening of the Olympic Games in order for them to serve as a reference point or it just naturally happened that the two events occurred at the same time. Nonetheless the event became a marketing opportunity that was explored by Guttmann over a period of time while promoting the Games for the Paraplegic.  

The real international games though happened in 1952 as it had athletes who were coming from the military rehabilitation center in the Netherlands.  Thereafter the Games continued to be an international affair and grew in popularity such that eighteen countries participated at the 1956 Games. The Games program also increased to include other sporting events such as swimming, snooker, javelin, dartchery, fencing and basketball, which replaced netball.

The big day for Dr. Guttmann might have been in 1960, in Italy, when the Paraplegic Games were staged just after the Olympic Games in Rome and using some of the same venues that were used for the Olympic Games. It was at these Games that Pope Paul XIII, who had graced the Games, addressed Dr. Guttmann as ‘the De Coubertin of the paralysed’ and from there on the Games followed the four-year cycle of the Olympic Games and they were also staged at different places just like the Olympic Games. 

The Games continued to grow in size with the addition of other disability groups. The visually impaired and amputee’s categories were added into the program in 1976 and cerebral palsy was added in 1980. Intellectually disabled participants were allowed to participate in 1992 and the category was removed from the program after the 2000 Sydney Games and they were re-instated in the London Paralympic Games in 2012. We will cover the Paralympic Games program next week so that everyone can see where they fit ie to see the options they have in this mega sport event. 

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