Open to all disabilities


Photo:British Women's team, Heidelburg, 1972

British Women's team, Heidelburg, 1972

photo Margaret Maughan

In 1972 the Olympic Games took place at Munich and the Wheelchair Games were nearby at Heidelberg. The 1976 Toronto Games were the first to use the title “Olympiad for the Physically Disabled”; the International Stoke Mandeville Games Federation (ISMGF) and the International Sports Organisation for the Disabled (ISOD) combined to create a single international event so for the very first time athletes who were blind or partially sighted and amputees competed along with the wheelchair based athletes.

1976 also saw the first Winter Games at Örnsköldsvik in Sweden (called the Winter Olympics for the Disabled).  However, this was only open to athletes who were blind or partially sighted or were amputees and not paraplegics.  Those who took part competed in Nordic and Alpine skiing events.

Photo:England v. Austria at Bowls, Toronto 1976.

England v. Austria at Bowls, Toronto 1976.

photo Margaret Maughan

The 1970s was the decade in which the argument about the use of the name ‘Olympics’ erupted between Guttmann and the International Olympic Committee; the IOC wanted to limit the use of the term while Guttmann felt that the award of the Fearnley Cup in 1956 had given the IOC’s backing to the Stoke Mandeville Games.  After the Toronto Games, the organisation agreed to stop using the term Olympics with the agreement that the IOC would forge a close relationship with the ISMGF.

This was also the decade when individual wheelchair sports started to set up their own governing bodies and championships, starting with the unofficial World Championship of what was to become the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation at Bruges in 1973


"The National Games worked on a hospital club basis. I went with my club, Southport, then there'd be Stoke Mandeville (which was SPAC), Sheffield which was Lodgemor, there'd be Hexham, Pinderfields, a load of clubs from all over the country" Mike Kenney

Photo: Illustrative image for the '1970s' page

photo: Mike Kenney

Photo: Illustrative image for the '1970s' page
Mike Kenney started swimming at the Stoke Mandeville National Games in 1973 before going on to be the UK's most successful Paralympic athlete to date with a total of 16 gold and 2 silver medals. He describes how he first got into swimming here

"The charge nurse said, "We're going down to the games at Stoke Mandeville; do you want to come?" And I was a bit worried about that 'cos I'd never been anywhere like that before... When I went down there they said (I don't know if it was a bit of a joke on my behalf) "Oh, someone's not turned up; we need another swimmer. Can you fit in?" I said, "Oh, I don't know about that. I've only come to watch..."  

 Fencing at International Level in the 1970s

Photo:Terry Willett (with his back to camera) fencing at Heidelberg in 1972

Terry Willett (with his back to camera) fencing at Heidelberg in 1972

film still: Wheelpower


Photo: Illustrative image for the '1970s' page
Terry Willett talks about the pleasure he got from fencing and competing internationally in the 1970s. The interview includes footage of him fighting at Heidelberg in 1972 here

Toronto 1976

Photo:Epee at Toronto, 1976

Epee at Toronto, 1976

photo Terry Willett

"This is Toronto, 1976, when I won gold in epee. I am on the right, possibly fighting the Frenchman, Benamar. He has just lunged at my body and I have decided, rather than defending myself, to just pick him off on the helmet. I had left myself wide open so I had to go for it. I got the hit; you can see the light showing it on the far left. You can tell by the way his body has fallen flat in the lunge that, like me, he was ‘complete’. In the 1970s the two fencing classifications were ‘complete’ or ‘incomplete’: i.e. you either had complete lesions, meaning that you had no abdominal muscles, or ‘incomplete’ where you still had some abs...

Photo:Terry at Toronto, 1976

Terry at Toronto, 1976

photo, Terry Willett

"If you were 'complete' then you had to hold yourself in position in the chair with your left arm as you have no stomach muscles to do the job. You can see how I am doing that in the right of the picture. But when you go for the lunge as he has then it’s all or nothing. You can’t easily recover from that afterwards as you have to push yourself back up with your arms."  Terry Willett

Wheelchair Basketball Championships

"Of course  it's supposed to be a sport of no contact. Well that alays amuses us all,'cos there's a lot goes on, goes on 'off the ball' and there's alot goes on with the wheelchairs. It has to be very subtle nowadays, whereas in my days you could actually decide if someone was roughing you up, you could return the compliment" Terry Willett

Photo: Illustrative image for the '1970s' page
Terry captained the British team during the early 1970s; he talks about the shift in the sport from amateur to profesional and describes the particularly vicious Commonwealth Games final of 1970 between Australia and Britain here

Photo:The winning GB team in 1973. Terry Willett is no. 11 and Cyril Thomas no. 10.

The winning GB team in 1973. Terry Willett is no. 11 and Cyril Thomas no. 10.

photo Terry Willett

The first unofficial IWBF championship, which was to become known as the Gold Cup, was held at Bruges in 1973. The final was between Holland and Great Britain and Terry Willett captained the victorious GB team. Britain dominated the sport in the early 1970s and had already defeated Australia in the 1970 Commonwealth Games in what Terry recalls as a particularly tough and occasionally brutal match.

"The Australians were a very hard team. Some of their players were still using old-style ‘travaux’ chairs, the ones with the large wheels at the front and the smaller ones behind. They might have been ancient and heavy, but those Aussies could spin them on a sixpence; they were actually far more manoeuvrable than our Everest and Jennings chairs. There was one older man on their team, Mather Brown, who was the ‘hit man’ for the Aussies. He was a nice enough guy, but definitely a bit of an animal.  His tactic was to come in close to an opposing player and then deliberately spin his chair up against you; he did it so fast that unless you got your hands off your own pushing rims then you would lose your knuckles. It was one of those questionable tactics in the early days before the rules cleared it up; when challenged, the player would claim it was just accidental. Well our star player in that match, who was playing at Point, was Cyril Thomas. He was a good friend of mine, another former miner, big chap, six foot four and knuckles like a dust pan. And this Mather Brown kept trying to knobble Cyril; he had nearly chopped his hand off on a couple of occasions in the match and eventually Cyril just wheeled up to him and shouted, “Do that again and I’ll flatten you!” And what do you know?  Five minutes later Mather Brown did just that. So Cyril went up and laid him one, right on the nose, knocked him out cold. Cyril was sent off with a smile on his face, Brown was out of the match too; and we went on and won it and took the gold. It was one of the hardest games I ever played." Terry, athlete

Photo:Dutch and English teams at the start of the 1973 Gold Cup

Dutch and English teams at the start of the 1973 Gold Cup

Terry Willett

Look at the chairs we played in! The backs are so low and there are no side guards. In the team photo you can see I am sitting on a big thick cushion and I have got blocks on my footrests to raise my height and get my reach up. You couldn’t change the height of the foot rest;  it had to be a standard 10cm clearance from the ground; so you got round it with foot blocks and cushions. Terry, athlete

 Stoke Mandeville InternationalGames

The Olympics took place every fourth year, but in the intervening three years Stoke Mandeville continued to host the international games. During the 1970s the facilities at Stoke Mandeville grew with its status as an international venue. The Sports Hall had opened in 1969, followed by the indoor bowls centre and the 'Olympic village' in the 1970s. 

However comparted with paralympic events now, it was still quite a home-spun enterprise with hospital staff doubling up as games administrators for the week. Sir Ludwig Guttmann expected all staff to help out. "You did not volunteer, you were volunteered". But it was also seen as a privilege and the physiotherapists took turns on a roster. In the 1972 games Ebba, one of the physiotherapists, helped with the archery doing the scoring and collecting the arrows. She already knew how to bandage a bow to one arm and a hook to the other, to splint an arm or to tie a competitor into the chair if they were tetraplegic and had no balance. "As the games became more professional people started to complain about us not being professional enough."  One year Ebba was asked to help with running and scoring the shot putt and she ‘floundered’.

 Eileen Brennan who was a child in the 1970s living in a hospital bungalow remembers never seeing her parents Mary and Jimmy who were both nurses during the summer as they would be working flat out on the games. 

Photo:Mary Brennan with the Italian team at Stoke Mandeville International Games, 1978

Mary Brennan with the Italian team at Stoke Mandeville International Games, 1978

photo, M Brennan

 "When the International Games were on in June and July we simply didn’t see dad for weeks as he used to do the first aid for all the teams; he had this medical room over at the stadium when the games were on and he would deal with anything that happened; he had a doctor he could call on if it was serious. The teams had their own people, but if they needed extra care because something had gone wrong then he would be there: maybe urine retention or bowel problems, cuts and bruises; there were often broken legs - the athletes would often bang into something and break a bone, but not necessarily realise straight away as they couldn’t feel anything."

Photo:Fencing, Stoke Mandeville, 1970s

Fencing, Stoke Mandeville, 1970s

photo Wheelpower

"Originally you would have someone who held the chair from behind so you were stationary; later on your chair was clamped in position. This photo must be of an international event, maybe mid-70s. It's in the tent at Stoke; I recognise John Clarke and Ron Parkin (scoring) in the back ground...In fact if you had a good strong person to hold you it was better than the frames. You had to wait so long to be clamped in place that by the time you were ready you had gone off the boil. Fencing is such a nerve game that you needed to go straight on and do it, not hang around for the clamps." Sally, athlete

Physiotherapists also had to help with the classification of athletes because they had the best sense of the level of each patient’s injury. The class in which an athlete competed was determined by the level of their lesion, but later on other factors were included. As the games became more competetive so the advantage of being in a lower classification became an issue. On occasions some would cheat and pretend to be more disabled: by feigning not to be able to balance; by a wheelchair racer pretending not to have any abdominal muscles; or by swimmers disguising flickers in their legs. Physiotherapists now no longer do games classification; it requires specific training and is increasingly done by doctors or sports coaches. It is another example of the ongoing ‘professionalisation’ of the Paralympics movement.

Photo:Prince Charles, Sir Ludwig Guttmann and Jack Sutherland in the Indoor Bowls Centre at the 1973 International Games. The Prince was a great supporter and came to Stoke Mandeville to open the games each year.

Prince Charles, Sir Ludwig Guttmann and Jack Sutherland in the Indoor Bowls Centre at the 1973 International Games. The Prince was a great supporter and came to Stoke Mandeville to open the games each year.

photo R King

This page was added on 18/03/2011.

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