When Dr Ludwig Guttmann, the founder of the Paralympic movement, visited the Royal Perth Hospital Spinal Unit at Shenton Park in 1957, he challenged the unit’s director, Dr George Bedbrook, to send a team to the International Stoke Mandeville Games in July that year. Dr Bedbrook accepted the challenge in front of the gathered crowd. The athletes were shocked and excited: ‘At that point, it hit a lot of us like the proverbial thunderbolt – one minute we were nobodies and the next minute we were probable Australian representatives at an international sports meet’.
The first team of disability athletes to leave Australia followed the established tradition of securing donations, in kind or in cash, and self funding, including by securing donations from crowds watching exhibition wheelchair basketball matches.
Unlike future Australian teams, there were no formalised selection procedures. Dr Bedbrook acted as key organiser, liaison with Stoke Mandeville, and sole selector of the team.
The team consisted of seven West Australians and one athlete each from New South Wales and South Australia. Accompanying the team was physiotherapist ‘Johnno’ Johnston, who was the Manager and nurse Edna Smith. From a competitive perspective, there were no great expectations with the team, nor was the competitive dimension terribly important to Dr Bedbrook or the team’s support staff.
The touring athletes had a range of physical disabilities which had resulted in full or partial paralysis of their lower limbs caused by poliomyletis, spinal tumours, car accidents and war-related injuries. This was the first time that a team of disability athletes had flown en masse and key issues were the management of medical issues, loading and unloading of the sportsmen, as well as seating and sleeping conditions.
The father of the youngest team member, Alan Quirk, was a manager of Qantas in Perth and he did much to make the travel comfortable for the athletes. Rows of seats in the first class section of the Qantas ‘Super Constellation’ were removed to accommodate the athletes. The needs of the athletes were catered for by Johnno Johnston, Edna Smith and a doctor provided by Qantas. The 48 hour flight to London was punctuated by stopovers in Jakarta, Singapore, Bangkok, Karachi, Bahrain, Athens and Rome.
By 1957, the Stoke Mandeville Games had developed and expanded considerably since their origins in 1948. The 1957 Games had 360 competitors from 13 nations, competing in archery, basketball, club swinging, dartchery, fencing, javelin, snooker, table tennis and swimming.
The most successful Australian performers were Bill Mather-Brown and Frank Ponta, who combined to win the team sabre event and take home the first gold medal for an Australian team in an international disability sport event. Mather-Brown was also awarded the Carl Freeman Trophy for the best all round athlete after competing in basketball, fencing, field events and swimming. The captain of the Australian team, Bill ‘Slim’ O’Connell delivered the closing address on behalf of the visiting international teams.
The basketball competition was a knockout event and the Australians were pitted against the Duchess of Gloucester House, a convalescent home for those with spinal cord injuries. The Australians thought they would be very competitive given their training and games in Western Australia and after they saw the rudimentary, high backed chairs used by the Gloucester House team. However, the Gloucester House team had been playing for several years, making the final at Stoke Mandeville previously, and even with their cumbersome chairs they were too skilful for the Australians, who were eliminated in their first international game.