#1: The Early Beginnings of Wheelchair Sport: 1944-1964

Written by Dr. Robert D. Steadward

Wheelchair sports had its early beginnings during the Second World War. During this time period, 80% of paraplegics died within the first three years following their injury. What resulted from this poor chance of survival was a new approach to rehabilitation. Following WWII, the medical knowledge regarding spinal cord injuries improved dramatically, which then translated into improved rehabilitation techniques.

The Allied invasion of Europe in the Second World War resulted in many casualties from Canada, the United States and Great Britain, and this influx of veterans with a disability required new impetus on the various elements and techniques of rehabilitation. These changes eventually lead to the creation of sport programs in the three countries.

At Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Great Britain, a neuro-surgeon by the name of Dr. Ludwig Guttmann experimented with punch-ball exercises, darts, rope-climbing, and snooker. Wheelchair polo was later introduced, but was short-lived and eventually replaced by wheelchair basketball in popularity. The success of sport as a remedial exercise and clinical treatment provided the incentive for Guttmann to establish a formal day of sport competition, and Stoke Mandeville became known as the birthplace of wheelchair sports. These original local sport competitions at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital quickly grew to an annual international competition known as the Stoke Mandeville Games, the first of which were held in 1952 with 130 competitors representing England and the Netherlands.

In Canada, the first organized wheelchair sport and recreation activities took place in 1947 on the front lawn of Deer Lodge Rehabilitation Hospital in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The principles for this competition were identical to those promoted at Stoke Mandeville. Some of the events that took place included: archery, milk-bottle pitching, basketball-throwing, ring-tossing, croquet, and golf-putting. Competitions were held on an inter-ward basis with nine teams consisting of eight patients each.
Internationally, wheelchair sport began a rapid ascent into the public’s consciousness. In 1960, the first Paralympic Games, then still called the Stoke Mandeville Games, were held in Rome, Italy; however, Canada did not sent any competitors.

In 1964, the second Paralympic Games were held in Tokyo, Japan, and once again, Canada did not compete. Dr. Robert W. Jackson, a Canadian medical student working as an orthopedic consultant with the Canadian Olympic team at the time, questioned why a Canadian team was not participating.

Dr. Jackson approached Dr. Guttmann in Tokyo to note his disappointment with Canada’s absence. Dr. Guttmann responded to Jackson’s concern by expressing his own feelings regarding the apparent ambivalence shown by the Canadian Paraplegic Association (CPA) towards sport and recreation. In Guttmann’s view, the CPA was over-focusing on occupational rehabilitation, while it completely ignored the benefits of other modalities.

Consequently, Dr. Jackson left Tokyo with the promise to assemble a Canadian team for the 1968 Games in Tel Aviv in Ramat Gan, Israel. This promise fueled the continued growth of wheelchair sports, and in 1967, the incorporation of a governing body for Canadian wheelchair sports – the Canadian Wheelchair Sports Association.