Politics and sport

Paralympics on the international stage

Photo:Newly-independent Zimbabwe competed for the first time as an Olympic nation at Stoke Mandeville in 1984

Newly-independent Zimbabwe competed for the first time as an Olympic nation at Stoke Mandeville in 1984

photo Pursuit

The Olympic movement has always been vulnerable to political manipulation. Host nations have used it to grand-stand their own regimes - like Hitler's Berlin Olympics in 1938; individual athletes have use it to voice their own grievances - like Tommie Smith's and John Carlos' Black Power salutes at Mexico City in 1968. The horror story that was Munich in 1972, when Palestinians kidnapped and executed members of the Israeli Olympic squad, showed the lengths that some groups might go to in using the Olympic Games to publicise a cause.

"The events at the Munich Olympics in 1972 changed everything. I remember we went to Heathrow the year after to collect the Israeli team for the International Games. In those days two teams would share a coach for the journey back. The Israeli team landed first and once they were loaded on their security people refused to let the coach stand still. So we had to drive round and round the airport perimeter road with the coach full of armed police and Israeli security until the next team landed. That was the first year the Israeli team was put up at Hampden Hall outside Aylesbury; it was chosen because the police and security people could surround it and guard it more easily." Bob, organiser

For many years the International Wheelchair Games and the Paralympics had been untouched by such politics. However this started to change after Munich and perhaps - as the movement grew in size, prestige and professionalism - there was a certain inevitability to this. More politics from the outside world came in 1978 when the Shah's regime in Iran was about to fall. 

"It was during the opening ceremony for the 1978 International Games and all the teams were parading behind their flags. The Technical Director, Cliff Last, was in his usual prime position and was primed to ensure everything ran like clockwork. Then as the Iranian team joined the parade a member of their delegation pulled out a flag of the Ayatollah and shouted something to the crowd. I saw Cliff sprint through the crowd and wrestle the poster from the man." Bob, organiser

By the 1980s the Stoke Mandeville Games organisers were becoming used to the events being taken over by politics. There was a minor diplomatic incident in 1984 as the war between Iran and Iraq was still being fought. But in their earnest attempts to avoid an incident the organisers only ended up by enraging a third country.

"In the official parade, the countries were organized alphabetically and we thought it would be politic to put Ireland in between Iran and Iraq. However Ireland refused point-blank as they maintained that they were in fact “Eire”. Keith, organiser

South Africa and the Anti-Apartheid Movement

 South Africa had been expelled from the Olympics back in 1964 because of its apartheid regime. However it had continued to participate intermittently in Paralympic events. The Dutch parliament banned the team from taking part in the 1980 Arnhem games but the South African team came to Stoke Mandeville in 1984.

"I remember that I only competed against white South Africans in my heats in 1984 ; there was this sense that the Black athletes were there but were at the back, left behind.  I do remember the lead up to the boycott when the whole South Africa team was expelled. We mainly noticed it in terms of the heightened security and the threats to kill athletes or bomb the place – apparently from both sides - from those seeking to exclude South Africa and from those who wanted the team to participate. There were all sorts of silly restrictions on the team members; we couldn’t go to certain places, weren’t allowed to go into Aylesbury on our own. Of course I was only 19 going on 20 on the time; I had come to do a job and it was rather uncomfortable - it all seemed a huge distraction and  from the main purpose of the games. It was sad to see their team expelled but then you could say that if it hadn’t happened then South Africa wouldn’t be where it is today." Paul, athlete

In the following year, 1985, the South African team was formally expelled from the International Games at Stoke Mandeville. Dot one of the hospital physios remembers the moment. "It was the day of the closing ceremony and it was pouring with rain. It was raining so hard that it had been moved inside into the sports hall. This in itself was strange. The teams all paraded in and an announcement was made that the ISMGF (International Stoke Mandeville Games Federation) had banned South Africa from future competitions due to the continued  presence of Apartheid and the political pressure that required this to happen. The South African team were inclusive of both black and white athletes and it seemed a bizarre situation. For me it felt so confusing; I guess I was naïve and unaware of the reality of politics in my world. It was so sad... But the sight of so many familiar faces showing their sadness and dejection as they left the Sports Hall made it difficult to be objective."

In 1990 the International Games were again touched by a conflict going on elesewhere: this time the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq that year.

"This took place around the time of the International Games making it difficult for many members of the Kuwaiti team to return. They had to stay on at the stadium accommodation for several weeks until it was safe to return home. " Dot, physio

This page was added on 27/05/2011.

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