Sport for people with disabilities in South Africa

Gertrude Sierra
By Gertrude Sierra
3 Min Read

In part 1 of our two-part series, GERTRUDE SIERRA takes a look at sport for people with disabilities and how it all began.

he Paralympic movement dates back to 1948, when Dr Ludwig Guttmann, a neurosurgeon at the Stoke Mandeville hospital in the United Kingdom, introduced wheelchair sports as part of the rehabilitation process for World War II veterans who’d suffered spinal-cord injuries. The first Stoke Mandeville Games – the precursor to the modern Paralympic Games – was held to coincide with the start of the London Olympics in 1948.

Neville Cohen was the first South African to be introduced to sport at the Stoke Mandeville hospital during his rehabilitation after a motor vehicle accident that left him paralysed. On completion of Neville’s rehabilitation, Dr Guttmann invited him to take part in the 1956 Stoke Mandeville Games. In May 1956, Neville, accompanied by his friend Danny Wiener, completed a journey of 19 312 km from Johannesburg to London through Africa with his self-adapted vehicle. It took them just over three months to reach London. That year Neville became the first South African to unofficially take part in the fifth International Stoke Mandeville Games and win a gold medal for swimming. The following year Neville and Danny followed the same route back to Johannesburg, where they put a South African team together to take part in the next Stoke Mandeville Games as well as the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Perth, Australia.

Several other disabled individuals throughout South Africa became involved in either increasing awareness or raising funds to invite a United States team of 25 disabled athletes to South Africa. Tom Knowles, a paraplegic from Grahamstown, made his contribution by organising the very first wheelchair “marathon” from Pretoria to Durban. He completed a distance of 727 km in 14 days despite sustaining an injury to his hand when he fell out of his wheelchair. Irina Skorupska, a Polish immigrant, began holding archery lessons for paraplegics at the Eaton hospital in Plumstead, while Joan Lonsdale, a physiotherapist, persuaded her father and the Orange Grove Rotary Club to form the South African Paraplegic Games Association.

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