Swiss wheelchair athlete and multi Paralympics gold medallist Edith Wolf-Hunkeler (centre). Seen here in a race at the London 2012 Paralympics.
Swiss wheelchair athlete and multi Paralympics gold medallist Edith Wolf-Hunkeler (centre). Seen here in a race at the London 2012 Paralympics. Wikimedia / Sport the Library

Competition on wheels: wheelchair sport as a model for integration?

Nowadays it goes without saying that, hot on the heels of the Olympics, comes the Paralympics, in which people with disabilities compete on the same global platform. But it’s only since 1988 that the two sporting events have truly shared a stage. A look at the history of sport for the disabled.

Michael Jucker

Michael Jucker

Michael Jucker is a sports historian, head of Swiss Sports History and co-director of the FCZ Museum.

The television images of a completely exhausted but euphoric Heinz Frei, who won the silver medal in the handbike road race at the Paralympics (2020) in Tokyo on 1 September 2021, are unforgettable. It was his 35th Olympic medal, as he ended his career at the age of 63! Marcel Hug’s victory in the marathon and Manuela Schär’s silver medal are just as memorable. But where does success like this come from, and how did sport for people in wheelchairs actually develop? What factors played a role? Was it an easy ride to integration, and is it still going the same way? This article traces the history of wheelchair sport, in Switzerland and on the international stage. The article deals only with wheelchair sport, because this is where disabled sport began and it was central to the development of the Paralympics. People with disabilities have experienced exclusion for a long time, and many still do. It may be in everyday life through actual structural barriers, but the disabled also suffer through preconceptions and verbal abuse, feigned compassion and difficult conditions generally in the professional world. A lot has changed for the better, but it’s still far from perfect. While sport hasn’t always offered today’s openminded approach, throughout the course of history there have always been opportunities for participation.
The history of the Paralympics movement. YouTube / Paramlympic Games
It actually started with a war: World War II was still raging when the world’s first paraplegic centre was opened on 1 February 1944 in Stoke Mandeville (UK) – founded by Sir Ludwig Guttmann, originally a German, who fled to England in 1939. The number of patients disabled in the war was huge. Guttmann’s aim was to reintegrate the paraplegics and tetraplegics the war had left in its wake. Sport played an important role in his strategy: he believed sport should serve to trigger an enthusiasm for life (many paraplegics were traumatised) and an interest in fun, physical play and activity. In the style of the English model, in which sport develops self-confidence, discipline and a spirit of fair competition. War medicine had different priorities in those days: anyone who was no longer fit for military service was classed as an “invalid” and resources should not be unnecessarily wasted with sport. So Guttmann had his work cut out for him from the start. But he won through in the end.
Sir Ludwig Guttmann (1899-1980), father of the Paralympic Games.
Sir Ludwig Guttmann (1899-1980), father of the Paralympic Games. Wikimedia
In 1948, just four years after the centre opened, Guttmann organised a programme of sports competitions, the “Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralysed”. He deliberately chose the same date as the opening of the Summer Olympics in London: 28 July. The idea behind this was that the Mandeville Games would become part of the Olympic movement in the future. However, progress towards this goal was to be anything but smooth. The Games were held annually and became increasingly popular. In 1952, Dutch athletes came to Mandeville for the first time. So from 1953 the competitions were additionally known as “International Games”. For decades, wheelchair sport limited its international games to summer sporting events. In 1960 the competitions were held straight after the Summer Olympics in Rome, at the same sports venues. This link-up brought more attention and was a conscious use of synergies within the Olympics framework: the first Paralympics were born. These Games would now be held every four years, the same as the Olympic Games of the “pedestrians”.
The Swiss delegation at the 1960 Paralympics in Rome.
The Swiss delegation at the 1960 Paralympics in Rome. Wikimedia
But the road to the future was a rocky one. Combining the Paraplegic Games geographically with the “pedestrian” Olympic Games, which had been in existence since 1896, wasn’t always possible. On numerous occasions, progress was thwarted by societal attitudes and politics. In 1968, the Mexican government refused to accommodate the Paralympics; in Munich in 1972, poor planning in the design of the Olympic village meant the competition had to be relocated to Heidelberg at short notice. At the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, the refusal was of a political nature: in the Soviet system of thought, there was no such thing as “invalids”. However, it’s likely the twin facts that the Paralympics had so far been hosted by the Western powers, and that the “normal” games in the Soviet Union were boycotted, also played a role. But when it came to discrimination, the USA was right up there with the Eastern Bloc. In 1984 Los Angeles, the Olympic venue for that year, contended that disabled sport didn’t fit with its slick and shiny image. The wheelchair sports competitions were held in Stoke Mandeville at short notice, while the other disabled sports had to be diverted to a suburb of New York. It wasn’t until 1988 in Seoul, and then in Barcelona in 1992, that the two Games were finally brought together for good and, above all, there was a breakthrough in sports policy. Countries that want to hold the Olympic Games are now also required to host the Paralympics. The impact of this has been positive. Audience numbers are soaring; television broadcasting and media coverage of events has improved, and continues to increase. As already mentioned, Swiss athletes have made impressive achievements in disabled sports. It’s worth noting that Switzerland was active in disabled sports at an early stage – despite the fact that our country had no history of war invalids. A Swiss delegation travelled to Stoke Mandeville way back in 1956. In 1960 we sent a contingent of 60 athletes to Rome, and swimmer Denis Favre won Switzerland’s first gold medal. It was typical of Switzerland, and remains so, that in addition to the long-running support from the Federal Office of Sport, a system of voluntary involvement has always existed in parallel: there are numerous associations such as ProcapSport and Plusport Disabled Sports Switzerland, or the Swiss Paraplegics Association, which is affiliated with the Paraplegic Foundation. These organisations have successfully advocated for disabled interests in sports policy, and also organise international and national competitions.
Paraplegics from the Zurich region during a Paralympics training session in Tel Aviv in 1969 (in German). SRF
But it hasn’t been plain sailing in Switzerland either. For a long time, the Swiss Association for Disabled Sports, founded in 1960, resisted attempts to organise competitive sporting events, which would supposedly have detrimental effects: sport should be solely for the benefit of the health of disabled people. However, the increasing professionalisation of disabled sport at all levels couldn’t be stopped. The international successes also brought more funding and greater media attention. Another stepping stone to greater recognition and further development in disabled sport was certainly the fact that the resources for and opportunities offered by technical innovation were generally available. In a country of inventors and engineers, and thanks to the progressive Swiss Paraplegic Centre in Nottwil (1990), this was more easily achieved than in other countries. Especially in wheelchair sports, technical innovation is a competitive advantage. The record-breaking times achieved by Manuela Schär, Edith Wolf-Hunkeler, Marcel Hug, Heinz Frei and other athletes are possible due to the customised, single-unit production of the very best wheelchairs.
The Swiss delegation at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio.
The Swiss delegation at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio. Wikimedia
Wheelchair sport, and disabled sport in general, is accepted and widely recognised in Switzerland. Nonetheless, forms of discrimination still exist. There are still sports facilities with barriers. Disabled sports continue to receive less funding than “pedestrian sports”. Why should that be? And there’s another parallel: women in disabled sport earn less, and receive less funding and support and less media attention, even though they train just as often, invest their time and energy, and celebrate numerous national and international triumphs. Emblematic of this is the fact that at the Swiss Sports Awards only one prize is awarded in the paralympic athletes category (since 1987), and it can go to either a woman or a man. Women have been nominated less frequently (women 8 times, men 27 times). In the sports in which able-bodied people participate, meanwhile, both male and female athletes have been recipients of the prize since 1971. Why should that be?

Swiss Sports History

This text was produced in collaboration with Swiss Sports History, the portal for the history of sports in Switzerland. The portal focuses on education in schools and information for the media, researchers and the general public. Find out more at sportshistory.ch

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