The Paralympic Games are the focus of this assembly for primary schools, which explores issues related to the theme of disability and the attitude and determination demanded by professional sport

Since 1960, the Paralympics have been held shortly after the Olympic Games, in the same venue. The 2008 Paralympics begin in Beijing on 6 September, and, at the closing ceremony on 17th September, the flag will be handed over to London for the 2012 Paralympics.

This assembly captures the spirit of the Paralympics with the stories of two people – Dr Ludwig Guttman, whose belief in the emotional and physical healing power of sport led directly to the Paralympic movement, and swimmer Eleanor Simmonds who, at 13 years old, will be our youngest competitor in Beijing.

Resources

There are good pictures of Eleanor Simmonds on Google Images.

The Beijing Paralympic pictograms are instructive and useful if you can project them. Find them on the Beijing Paralympic website.

Introduction

[Note: “Boccia”, mentioned here is pronounced “boch-chee-a”]

What do you know about the Paralympics? Do you know what they are? [Take some ideas]

They are the Olympics for people with disabilities. So we will see people playing basketball in wheelchairs, people with visual impairment running races, and so on. There are also some sports that are specially designed for people with disabilities, such as “boccia” which is a bit like French boules except it’s played with different coloured leather balls on a marked out smooth surface. The balls can be moved with hands or feet or, if the player has very limited movement, with some apparatus to help them, such as a kind of chute to roll the ball down.

In order to make all the competitions fair, people are put into groups; not necessarily with people who have the same disability as them but according to how severe their disability is, and how restricted they are in their movement So, athletes compete in games with other athletes who are capable of moving around to a similar degree as themselves. Expert officials at the Paralympics called “classifiers” decide who is in which group, and this is a very important job.

Great Britain always has a strong team in the Paralympics, and this September we will be sending 206 athletes to compete in 18 of the 20 Paralympic sports. Every single competitor who goes to Beijing has already won a personal battle. To bring home a medal – and many of them surely will – can only be a bonus.

Every Paralympian has his or her own story. In a minute we’re going to hear about one of the 4000 competitors from 148 nations who will take part, a girl called Eleanor who is from Great Britain.

But first, let’s hear the story of the person who is sometimes called the “father of the Paralympics”.

Dr Ludwig Guttman, who lived from 1899 to 1980, was a neurologist – that’s a doctor who specialises in problems with the nerves and the brain. He was born in Poland, and worked there for many years, but in 1939 he was forced to leave and come to England to escape the second world war. Because he was a doctor, the British government gave him work helping soldiers and others who were unable to walk because their spines had been injured. In 1944 he was asked to set up a special spinal injuries unit at Stoke Mandeville in Buckinghamshire.

At Stoke Mandeville, Dr Guttman found himself dealing with young and active men and women who had lost the use of their legs, and in order to keep them active and confident, he encouraged them to play sport using whatever limbs and movement they had. Soon, people were zooming about in their wheelchairs playing hockey and other ball games.

Then, in 1948, London hosted the Olympic Games, and Dr Guttman seized the opportunity to run his own Stoke Mandeville Games for people in wheelchairs. Gradually the idea grew, and the term “Paralympics” was invented. At first it meant “Paraplegic Olympics” – “Paraplegic” is a word used to describe someone with a spinal injury who can’t walk – but now it’s taken to mean “Parallel Olympics” – a parallel form of the Games. That’s because it now includes every possible kind of disability and not just people with spinal injuries. All people with disabilities owe a great deal to the work of Dr Guttman because he wouldn’t accept that people with disabilities shouldn’t or couldn’t do sport. In fact he believed the opposite – that it was really important for all people to do whatever sport they were capable of, and that sports should be designed to be as inclusive as possible.

[Add a comment here about your own school’s inclusive sport policy if it’s appropriate]

One who certainly won’t accept that she can’t do things is Eleanor Simmonds. Dr Guttman, would be proud of her. She’s an example of how the Paralympics have grown to include people with all kinds of disabilities. Eleanor, who is 13 years old, is the youngest competitor at the games. She has a condition she was born with called achondroplasia. This means she’s small – the average height of a 6 or 7 year old – and will never grow much more than that, even as an adult. But she’s a keen swimmer and in the Paralympics will compete in four swimming events – 50, 100, 400 metres freestyle and the 200m individual medley.

Eleanor started swimming when she was five, and up until recently it was thought that she would be a competitor for London 2012, but she’s improved so quickly that she’s now in this year’s team. Her coach says: “Eleanor’s very dedicated and enthusiastic, and she has a great support team in her Mum and Dad. She doesn’t make a big fuss about things – just gets on with the job.”

Conclusion

Keep a careful eye on Eleanor’s progress in the Paralympics, and on the progress of all the other athletes. Don’t just concentrate on the British athletes though, because all the athletes have something to teach us about determination and, above all, about having the right attitude to sport and competition. Eleanor is training hard to try to do better than her peer Nyree Lewis, who won a swimming gold medal in 2004 and who has cerebral palsy. Eleanor saw her on the TV in 2004, winning gold. She says: “I just told myself that I would like to do that.” Eleanor knows that your competitor might be your rival but is also potentially your friend, and someone who can inspire you to do better.

A prayer

Lord, we thank you for the inspiration of people who show us how to make the best of our lives. Help us to work hard to overcome our difficulties and to use our abilities to the full. Be with all disabled athletes in Beijing. May they reach their own personal goals, make new friends, learn new ideas and, above all, rediscover the fun of sport and competition.

Reflection

We all have different abilities. What matters is our attitude to those differences – both the differences between us and the differences within us.

Further information
The Beijing Paralympic websit
• Information on Team GB

This e-bulletin issue was first published in September 2008

About the author: Gerald Haigh

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