A Sporting Chance: from Incurables to Paralympic Champions

Lynn: I’ve seen a T-Shirt recently that proclaims, “I read. I know things.” I like that but what I want is a T-Shirt that says, “I didn’t know that!” I needed to wear that shirt when I read A Sporting Chance: How Ludwig Guttmann Created the Paralympic¬† Games (Houghton, 2020). This truly outstanding book by Lori Alexander made me exclaim this sentiment the entirety of the book! The book is intended for younger readers, Gr. 2-5, and it introduces them to an extraordinary figure, Ludwig Guttmann. I am sorry to say that I knew nothing about Guttmann or his many outstanding contributions or so much more that Alexander so skillfully conveys.

Ludwig Guttmann’s early life was spent in Germany near the Polish border. A variety of experiences led him to become a neurologist and skilled surgeon. But when the Nazis came to power, Guttmann, a Jew, was forbidden to treat non-Jewish patients and then he lost his medical license completely. As conditions worsened for the Jewish people, Guttmann was able to escape to England where he had to begin again to establish himself as a physician. Finally, his deep interest and research in spinal injuries resulted in him establishing a neurology unit and resuming his ground-breaking work.¬† Again, I had absolutely no idea that spinal injuries were considered un-treatable as late as the end of WWII or that doctors expected patients to die within the year. It is no surprise that 80% of spinal injury patients did just that considering the prevailing appalling beliefs about treatment. Observing the benefits of sports participation for his patients, prompted Guttmann to establish and promote what became the Paralympics. Dr. Guttmann revolutionized understanding and treatment of spinal injury cases and thanks to this book, young readers will come away with a solid grasp of Guttmann’s contributions. They will also gain a real admiration for Guttmann, his perseverance, and the enormous obstacles he had to overcome in his life as well as his impact on the world.

Alexander does an outstanding job of presenting complex and wide-ranging information here for young readers, including scientific and historical background but not bogging down the text. The story is a fascinating one but it is also one with many facets and Alexander manages all of this extremely well. I learned so much from this enjoyable and really inspiring story. Now – where is that T-Shirt????

Cindy: “Incurables.” That’s what spinal injury patients were called. What a journey in the last 80 years and Ludwig Guttmann’s story is fascinating, inspiring, and cautionary. Perseverance and the belief that horrible situations do not have to remain the status quo are characteristics that young readers can learn from as they read this book.

The sometimes tough subject matter and the historical photos are supplemented perfectly for the young audience by Allan Drummond’s illustrations throughout the book. In 2011 we blogged about Energy Island, a book he both wrote and illustrated, and we’ve been fans of his ever since.

The final chapter, “Going for Gold,” features some of the amazing athletes who have won medals at the Paralympic Games.

I was moved to investigate the Paralympic Organization’s website and found this short video that includes Guttmann on their history page. There are more videos and information to be found there, including one about the Stoke Mandeville Hospital and Spinal Treatment Unit.

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