Ludwig Guttmann - father of the Paralympic Games - is celebrated on film

By Jennifer Lipman, August 9, 2012
Eddie Marsan as Dr Guttmann with Rob Brydon as his patient

Eddie Marsan as Dr Guttmann with Rob Brydon as his patient

The daughter of the founder of the Paralympics Games has expressed delight that the hosting of the Games in London has reminded people of her father’s legacy.

Ludwig Guttmann was a renowned neurologist in Germany but, in 1939, helped by the British Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, he fled to Oxford to escape the Nazis.

In 1944, he gained a position treating injured servicemen at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire.

Within months, the refugee doctor transformed care at the hospital, believing that paralysed patients needed physical stimulation.

In 1948, as the London Olympics opened, he arranged a sports day at Stoke Mandeville, a tiny event involving 16 competitors but which has now grown to attract athletes from around the world. As one patient recalled, he would say: “Your lazy time is over”.

Dr Guttmann’s story has been made into a film, The Best of Men, starring Eddie Marsan, which premiered at the Jewish Museum last month and will be shown on BBC2 next Thursday.

“They got him extremely well,” said his daughter, Eva Loeffler, who was six when the family fled Nazi Germany.

She said that her father would have been thrilled by the renewed interest in how the Paralympics began.

The film covers his work at Stoke Mandeville, but Dr Guttmann’s heroism can be traced to 1938, when he helped 60 Jews survive Kristallnacht by falsifying medical records and duping the Gestapo when they searched the hospital.

“He talked very little about it,” said Ms Loeffler. “He didn’t want to talk about the past — he lost a lot of people.”

But as the film makes clear, Dr Guttmann’s experience in Germany only pushed him to do more for his patients, to whom he was devoted.

Eva Loeffler, who attended the first Games as a teenager, helping pull arrows out of targets and collecting table tennis balls, remembers how her father created “a real community”, in which ballerina Margot Fonteyn, whose husband was a Stoke Mandeville patient, would “trip around” along with everybody else.

Later, when the international teams joined in, Eva would spend Friday nights at the Israeli tent. “In those early years it was just a very relaxed and happy occasion,” she said.

Dr Guttmann, who was knighted in 1966 and died in 1980, was awarded the Fearnley Cup for outstanding contribution to the Olympic ideal in 1956.

“When he received it, he said: ‘I dream of the times when there will be Olympic Games for disabled people’,” said his daughter. That dream came true.

The exhibition, Ludwig Guttmann: Father of the Paralympic Games, is at the Jewish Museum until September 16.

Last updated: 10:27am, August 9 2012