After Jewish refugee Dr. Ludwig Guttmann escaped to the UK from the Third Reich, he became the director of a new unit for patients with spinal injuries at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. The medical establishment at the time gave a grim prognosis for individuals with such injuries, but Guttmann viewed the situation through a different lens. One of his treatments was to introduce fun games for patients, such as archery. In 1948, he held an archery competition between groups of injured British former servicemembers from World War II.
That competition at Stoke Mandeville is now widely viewed as the first-ever Paralympic Games. Over the past 70-plus years, the games have provided increasing opportunities for athletes with disabilities to compete on the global stage—including in Israel during the 1968 Summer Paralympics. This year, Jewish athletes from Israel and the U.S. will be competing in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games from Aug. 24 to Sept. 5, which includes about 4,400 athletes with physical disabilities from 160 countries.
“First of all, I’m very proud that the founder of the Paralympic Games is a Jew, Ludwig Guttmann,” said Ron Bolotin, the head of the Israeli delegation. “I think one of the main reasons Israel was one of the pioneer nations in the Paralympic sports and Paralympic movement from the 1960s is because of Guttmann.”
Bolotin was injured by a land mine while serving with the Israel Defense Forces in the Sinai. He won 11 medals for Team Israel in swimming at multiple Paralympics—three gold, five silver and three bronze—and at the European championships, he established a world record in the 100-meter butterfly.
According to one account, Guttmann first became interested in working with people with disabilities while still in Germany, when he treated a coal miner with a broken spine and another medical practitioner was dismissive of the miner’s prospects. After relocating to the UK and becoming head of the Stoke Mandeville unit, Guttmann developed a multi-pronged treatment plan for people with spine injuries—including the introduction of sports.
“There was a curative factor, a very natural way to improve physical stress,” said Ian Brittain, a researcher and author based at Coventry University in the UK, whose focus is on disability and Paralympic sports. “There was a fun way—no repetitive, boring exercises. This had a psychological element— [Guttmann] always said sports had to be fun. The individual had to enjoy it. The third [reason] goes back to the first [Paralympics] with archery. It’s a very natural way” of moving one’s body for a paraplegic, and thus “very important [for people] pushing themselves around in a wheelchair.”
Guttmann presided over the growth of what were then called the Stoke Mandeville Games. In 1952, the games welcomed competitors from the Netherlands in what is widely considered the birth of international competition for athletes with disabilities. By 1960, the name “Paralympics” was given to these games, although at the time the name referred to paraplegics, as the games were not open to individuals with other disabilities. After the games eventually welcomed individuals with other disabilities, the “para” part of the name was understood to mean “parallel” to the Olympics.
In 1968, when Mexico City was hosting the Summer Olympics, some concerns arose over the Mexican capital’s ability to host the Paralympics, including concerns related to the high altitude. Tel Aviv stepped in as the Paralympic host, in a games that were punctuated by a dramatic win for the Israeli men’s wheelchair basketball team and its captain, Baruch Hagai, against the heavily favored U.S. in the championship game.
“The wheelchair basketball final is always quite a big event at the Paralympics,” Brittain said. “It’s one of the blue-ribbon sports at the games.”
Israelis are among the top medalists all-time in Paralympic history. Zipora Rubin-Rosenbaum is 13th all-time on the medals list with 30, including 15 gold, eight silver and seven bronze, in four sports: athletics, swimming, table tennis and wheelchair basketball. Other Israelis who have excelled include wheelchair basketball captain Hagai, who also won gold medals in table tennis across four Paralympics, in 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976. Israel is ranked 15th all-time on the Summer Paralympic medals list with 375.
“[Rubin-Rosenbaum] is the most decorated athlete [among] the Israeli Paralympians in all the history of the Paralympic Games,” Bolotin said.
This year, there are 33 Israeli Paralympians—18 female and 15 male. They include Doron Shaziri, a highly decorated competitor in the shooting event. In swimming, Israel has two world champions, Ami Dadaon and Mark Malyar, and three European champions and medalists (Dadaon, Malyar and Iyad Shalabi).
“[Shalabi] is one of the top swimmers in his classification, C1, the most severely disabled swimmers, paralyzed in four limbs,” Bolotin said.
Bolotin also said, “We hope this games will be the first medal for a Muslim medalist” for Team Israel.
On Team USA, table tennis player Tahl Leibovitz will return for his sixth Paralympics. A native of Haifa, Leibovitz came with his parents to the U.S. He was diagnosed with a condition called osteochondroma that creates benign bone tumors. He also survived some difficult formative years, including homelessness. Today he is a social worker and the author of a book, “Ping Pong for Fighters.” He continues to play table tennis and notes that there are other Jewish Paralympians representing the U.S., including Ian Seidenfeld, whose father, Mitchell Seidenfeld, is Leibovitz’s coach. Leibovitz also mentioned Eli Wolff, a men’s soccer player in the Atlanta Paralympics in 1996; the two first met playing table tennis at a tournament in Harvard Square.
There’s a lot of Jewish history in the Paralympics, as well as hope that in the future, the games and the athletes will continue to gain recognition.
“We just celebrated, three years ago, the 50th anniversary from the  games,” Bolotin reflected. “There was some publicity around it. There was a ceremony at the house of the president of Israel … I was surprised not too many people were aware of it.”
But, he said, back in 1968 “there were not too many sports. It’s not like today. Today it’s something huge.”