Today’s wheelchair marathons can trace their history in the UK back to the aftermath of World War One when wheelchair races were organised in 1923 for disabled servicemen living at the Star and Garter home at Richmond, Surrey. Interestingly, they used a specially designed tricycle shaped vehicle with a long wheel base which bore an uncanny resemblance to the modern three wheeled race chair which first emerged over 60 years later.
These early races never exceeded 200 metres and it wasn’t until the next world war that wheelchair sport took on a new dimension with the opening in 1944 of the Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville in Buckinghamshire. Sir Ludwig Guttmann, the director of this centre, pioneered competitive sports as an integral part of rehabilitation for disabled veterans with the result that the foundation for regular competition was laid.
This new approach to sports for the disabled in the UK coincided with the introduction of wheelchair sporting events in other European countries and in the USA. This culminated in the first international competition for athletes in wheelchairs which was organized between Britain and the Netherlands in 1952. A total of 130 athletes with spinal cord injuries competed in six sports.
Wheelchair-based competition first became associated with the Olympic Games in 1960 when Sir Ludwig brought together 400 wheelchair athletes at the venue in Rome to compete against each other in what were effectively the first Parallel Olympics or “Paralympics” as they are known today.
The next big leap forward occurred in 1964 when official games for disabled athletes were held shortly after the Olympic Games in Tokyo. This saw the official introduction of wheelchair racing even though competitors were using normal, everyday chairs and only over distances up to 200 metres.
The first record of anyone completing a wheelchair marathon came in 1974 when a Vietnam War veteran, Eugene Roberts from Baltimore, entered the Boston Marathon in his standard hospital issue chair and completed the race in 7 hours. This breakthrough was followed up 4 years later by the first ever wheelchair marathon held in Toledo, Ohio.
A decade later, the 1984 Paralympic Games held at Stoke Mandeville witnessed the first serious use of specially designed sporting wheelchairs, the forerunner of today’s custom-built racing wheelchairs whose basic design harks back to those early days at the Star and Garter.
Today, most major marathons incorporate a wheelchair division and this normally starts off ahead of the able-bodied runners. Everything’s come a long way in just over half a century.