STOKE MANDEVILLE, United Kingdom (AFP) –
The Paralympic flame was lit at the spiritual home of disabled sport on Tuesday, signalling the 24-hour countdown to the start of this year’s Games.
Some 3,000 people, including former Paralympians and dignitaries such as London 2012 organising committee chief Sebastian Coe, watched as the flame took hold at 8.12 pm (1912GMT) at Stoke Mandeville Stadium in southern England.
It was at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1948 that a German-Jewish neurologist, Ludwig Guttmann, organised the first recognised sports events for people with disabilities, 12 years before the inaugural Paralympics in Rome.
“It is simply not possible to stand here and not recognise the momentous debt of gratitude to him, his work, his drive and passion,” Coe said of Guttmann, who died in 1980.
“I really hope that if he was standing here today he would be very proud to be able to look on the eve of the Paralympic Games that it was that work, that drive and that passion that created a games that are now the second-largest sporting event in the world.”
The president of the International Paralympic Committee, Philip Craven, said simply: “It all started here.”
This year’s Paralympic flame was created from four ‘national flames’ of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that were kindled on Britain’s highest peaks and brought to Stoke Mandeville in miner’s lamps.
The flames, transferred into four torches, were then placed simultaneously in a cauldron, creating a single flame that will be taken 92 miles (148 kilometres) overnight from the world-famous spinal injuries centre to the British capital.
A total of 116 teams of five people will now carry the flame to the Olympic Stadium in east London for Wednesday evening’s opening ceremony.
Guttmann’s daughter, Eva Loeffler, said the Paralympics had developed beyond anyone’s expectations from modest roots with just 16 wheelchair athletes — all of them war veterans with spinal injuries — in 1948.
“Everyone here could not have dreamed that lighting a spark in the hearts, minds and bodies of Paralympians would grow into the amazing spectacle we are about to witness,” the 79-year-old told the crowd.
“It’s so right and fitting that Stoke Mandeville, the birthplace of the Paralympics, has been chosen as the starting line for the Paralympic torch relay for London 2012…
“We have hope that the power of the Paralympic Games and the incredible Paralympic athletes will inspire a generation of newly-disabled people to transform their lives through the power of sport.”
The original Stoke Mandeville games were timed to coincide with the first post-war Olympics in London the same year and became so popular they were repeated annually.
The first international event was held in 1952, when a team of Dutch veterans came to compete.
Guttmann, who fled Nazi Germany with his family, managed to convince organisers of the 1960 Rome Olympics to allow 400 wheelchair athletes from 23 countries to compete in a ‘parallel’ event and the Paralympics were born.
This year, a record 4,200 athletes from 166 countries, including reclusive North Korea, will participate in 20 sports, with the 11-day event an unprecedented near sell-out.
Guttmann’s daughter said her father would have been proud of how disabled sport had developed, particularly with the London Olympics seeing its first double-amputee competitor in South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius.
Pistorius — dubbed the “Blade Runner” because he runs on carbon fibre prosthetic limbs — made the semi-final of the men’s 400m and the final of the 4x400m relay, and is set to defend his Paralympic T44 100m, 200m and 400m titles.