1954 Paralympics and Netball

Netball and the Paralympics


Do you know what is inspiring about history?  It is the surprises it throws at you.  Certainly a very recent surprise has to be that Netball was a Paralympic sport.  What you say, how can that be?  Well, out of the blue, Steve Griffin sent in this photograph.

He said that in going through his mother-in-law’s family photos he came across it.  On the back of the photo, it says 1954 Paralympics SMH Netball Team.  Charlie (standing), George, Roy, Dorothy, Jock & John.  The SMH logo on the shirts stands for Stake Mandeville Hospital.

His mother-in-law was Winifred (Freddy) Toft (nee Stevens) and she knew all the players and many of the patients and staff at that time, including the wonderful Dr Ludwig Guttman, the brainchild of the games.

Freddy was a student at Stoke Mandeville between 1952-55, and during college vacations, worked as what was in those days known as an orderly. It was a wonderful experience and she feels very privileged to have had it.  She says it’s amazing now to remember how they managed to manoeuvre the heavy all-purpose wheelchairs of the day. How fortunate are today’s  Paralympians with their modern lightweight versions.

A quick bit of research, and low and behold it is revealed that Netball was added in 1954.  A bit of background first.

Although sport for athletes with physical impairments had existed for more than 100 years, the earliest recorded wheelchair games in the UK, was in 1923 as part of the sports day or ‘Gymkhana’ for staff and patients and held at the Royal Star and Garter Home for Injured War Veterans in Richmond, Surrey.

It is no coincidence that the first Stoke Mandeville games were held on July 28, 1948,  the same date as the Olympic Games were opened in Wembley, London, the first time after World War II.   There was just one sport however, wheelchair archery.

The Paralympics were the brainchild of Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, head of the Stoke-Mandeville Hospital’s Spinal Injuries Unit.  Dr Ludwig Guttman was a respected Jewish neurosurgeon who had been forced to flee his homeland of Germany in 1939 to escape Nazi persecution. Five years later, he was asked by the British government to open a Spinal Injuries Unit at Stoke Mandeville, intended to treat soldiers and civilians injured during the war.

Guttmann had realized that enforced, immobile bed rest, the standard practice in spinal injury cases, was hurting his patients.  He experimented with moving the patients, gently turning them over regularly, and was encouraged by the results.  He began programs to strengthen the patients with simple games of ball, then wheelchair polo and basketball, darts, and archery.  Patients lived and thrived, and the idea of competitive sports for people with physical disabilities took hold

Two years later, in 1950, the Stoke-Mandeville competition had expanded to sixty competitors, and javelin throwing was included.  By 1954, fourteen nations were represented at Stoke-Mandeville, with athletes from as far away as Australia, Egypt, Pakistan, and Portugal, and were held on Friday 30th and Saturday 31st July.  The sports included in the 1954 Games were Archery, Dartchery, Javelin, Netball,  Snooker, Swimming and Table Tennis, along with demonstration sports Club Swinging and Wheelchair Fencing.  In Netball, the winners ‘Red Devils’ of the Lyme Green Settlement, Macclesfield, Cheshire proved too strong for the opposition, with the Netherlands as runners-up.  It should also be noted that it was in this year that the netball competition began its transformation into what was to later become wheelchair basketball with the addition of a backboard to the netball posts that allowed for re-bounded shots to score.

In 1960, 400 athletes with disabilities, from 23 countries, gathered at the Olympic Stadium in Rome, just days after the Olympics had concluded.  They competed in archery, basketball, swimming, fencing, javelin, shot put, club throwing, snooker, swimming, table tennis and the pentathlon.  For more than a decade, Paralympic competition was only held for summer sports.  Then, in 1976 in Sweden, the first Winter Games were held – the first games, also, to feature athletes who were not wheelchair users.  198 athletes from 16 countries competed in alpine and nordic skiing for amputees and visually impaired athletes with ice sledge racing as a demonstration sport.

Guests of Honour at the 1954 Games were Iain Macleod, Minister of Health, Lord Burghley, British IOC member and President of the International Amateur Athletics Federation, and Elliott Newcomb, Secretary General of the World Veteran’s Federation. Also in attendance was the South Korean Minister of Social Affairs, Mr Koo Cha Hun, who was visiting Stoke Mandeville to learn more about the rehabilitation techniques used there. In keeping with his constant references to and use of Olympic practices Dr Guttmann introduced a ‘Parade of Nations’ this year, which commenced at 5.45pm on the Saturday evening. The participants paraded past a specially constructed saluting base occupied by Iain Macleod and Lord Burghley and completed the parade at prize giving area, where each of the guests gave a speech before Lord Burghley presented the prizes.


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