Fun and games: the long history of sport at Blind Veterans UK

20 July 2017 09:00

This week sees the start of the 2017 World Para Athletics Championships being held at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London continuing the legacy of the London 2012 Olympics.

Sport and recreation played a great part in the rehabilitation of our blind veterans during and after World War I and have continued to do so to this day.

We began to hold our own annual sports days in 1917 and the winner of the 100 yards ran it in a time of 10.8 seconds, just 1.5 seconds slower than the world record at that time.

Black and white photo of 2 sprinters, one blind folded the other blind, taking part in sprint race using guide lines at inaugural World Paralympic Games in Regents Park

We received a visit from a future Olympic champion sprinter Harold Abrahams, whose story was one of those told in the well-known film ‘Chariots of Fire’. He raced twice against two of our men, Alec Biggs and Harry Northgreaves, with them using a fixed guide rope.  On the first occasion Abrahams won by nearly 10 yards but for the second he was blindfolded so as to run on equal terms. This time Biggs won, with Northgreaves second. The blindfolded Abrahams is shown on the left in the picture above, with Alec Biggs.

Our founder, Sir Arthur Pearson, realised that those veterans who were able to do so would benefit greatly, both mentally and physically, from participating in sports such as rowing, running, swimming, football, tug-of-war and competitive walking. Pearson wrote in his autobiography of how ‘…regular exercise is very important for blind people, because a man naturally tends to take less after he has lost his sight than before’.

Black and white photo of blind veterans Tug of War team training in Regents Park

One of our tug-of-war competitions is shown in the picture above. Perhaps now not always considered a sporting activity, tug-of-war was popular at the time, and featured in the Olympics from 1900 to 1920. Pearson wrote of it that ‘….tug-of-war contests became very popular. They provided splendidly hard exercise, and there was very hot competition between the different houses for the cups and medals which were presented. Some well-known Army experts who had been invalided out of the Service coached the teams. Visitors were often astonished to see a dozen men earnestly engaged in a hopeless attempt to pull up by the roots one of the fine oak trees which adorned the grounds; but these apparently crazy fellows were just tug-of-war teams learning the most scientific way to make the best use of their weight and strength.’

Other races were more for fun, such as the egg and spoon race shown below.

Black and white photo of blind veterans competing in running race at inaugural World Para Games in Regents Park

Sport offered our blind veterans not only the chance to become, or continue being, active but also introduced the aspect of competition to their lives. Instead of just having their own private battles and thoughts about how to conquer their blindness, they had to think about conquering an opponent. They were, of course, ahead of their time.  Many events in the World Para Athletics Championships will feature blind, or partially sighted, participants each striving to show that their disability is no barrier to success and self-esteem.

To see more stories from our Historical Photography Project click here or check our Facebook page for our #ThrowbackThursdays.