NOT-LONDON 2012 Exploring Olympic venues outside the capital 2) Stoke Mandeville
London's Olympic closing ceremony will take place exactly two years from today. But that won't be the end of the show. Three weeks later the other Games kick off, the Games far fewer people follow, the Paralympics. And they have their their roots in English suburbia, 30 miles outside London in deepest Buckinghamshire. So I've been there too. After Wenlock, Mandeville.
The seeds of the Paralympics were unintentionally sown when an Aylesbury hospital was chosen for the treatment of military casualties during World War 2. A specialist spinal injuries unit was set up, whose expertise continued and grew into peacetime under the directorship of Dr Ludwig Guttmann. When London hosted the Olympic Games in 1948, hospital staff organised a special athletics event for 16 disabled ex-soldiers, and the annual Stoke Mandeville Games were born. In 1952 a Dutch team turned up, launching the first international sporting competition for disabled athletes. And in 1960 the competition ventured abroad to Rome, taking place alongside the city's able-bodied Olympics. Known at the time as the 9th Annual International Stoke Mandeville Games, this is the moment when the Paralympics are deemed to have been born. And yes, we came second. Great Britain's very good at coming second in the Paralympics, but we've never yet topped the medal table.
If you want to get to Stoke Mandeville hospital (not via an ambulance), there's one important thing to remember. Don't get off the train at Stoke Mandeville station. They have big signs up on the platforms warning you not to, and to alight at Aylesbury instead. The hospital was originally an isolation unit for cholera sufferers, so was very deliberately built in the nomansland halfway between the two settlements. Aylesbury's long since grown up and swallowed the place, but the hospital retains the name of the small commuter village down the road.
I got off the train at Stoke Mandeville, because I'm like that, although almost nobody else did. This is a sleepy Chiltern backwater, peaceful but not overflowing with character. The Post Office is the sort of place that sells Silvine exercise books and Tunnock's tea cakes. The village hall is the sort of place that hosts the Mid Bucks Rabbit Show. And the bus stop is the sort of place that boasts only five services a day, so I walked to the hospital instead. It was only a mile across the fields towards the big chimney in the distance, past a couple of extremely tame sheep, but there were rather a lot of stiles on the way so I'd never have managed the journey in a wheelchair.
OK, so Stoke Mandeville Hospital looks very much like a modern hospital. A huge organic cluster of rambling buildings, some thrusting and modern, others barely-altered prefabs from the dawn of the NHS [photo]. The Spinal Injuries Unit is one of the more up-to-date wings, with a friendly 'Welcome' scrawled across its roof. But I headed round the bleak northern perimeter road, past several staff car parks, to catch a glimpse of the legendary stadium. There it was through the fence, behind the junior doctors' accommodation block, a ring of eight blue lanes curving off towards a distant hedge. All the usual athletics facilities, by the looks of things, including spaces for chucking things and nets for chucking them into. In fact nothing extra special at all, because this is Sport For All, and round here everyone uses the same track. [photo]
But not every sports track has an Olympic Village attached. Most of it is bungalows, obviously, in a none-too fetching shade of sludge-brown brick surrounded by unkempt shrubbery. The village was built for the one occasion the fledgling Paralympics came to Stoke Mandeville, in 1984, when the hosting honours were shared transatlantically with New York. Nextdoor is the two-storey Olympic Lodge, with a ramp, obviously, which doubles up as an accessible hotel and conference centre. And a big steely sports centre, named after dear old Dr Guttman, within which lurk a badminton hall, swimming pool and (obviously) a gym. Looking at the Aylesburyfolk walking inside to use the facilities, and pumping iron through the smoked glass windows, you'd never guess this place had any special disabled function at all.
But there's a proper hint of the old days across the car park. A row of ramshackle white huts, of the kind that ought to house a pack or three of postwar boy scouts, unsullied by upgrade since their sporting debut [photo]. One's the Shooting Hall, where wheelchair athletes won medals for target practice, and another's the Wallace-Taylor Cuesports Room, where sedentary snooker players potted black for gold. And there's an indoor bowls centre too, even though that's not a Paralympic sport any more, because they used to do things differently here.
Disabled sport has moved on big time since 1948, so that when the Paralympics return to the UK in 2012 they'll have vastly outgrown this pioneering provincial sports centre. But its legacy lives on, both around here and around the world. And it's thanks to Stoke Mandeville that in precisely two years' time the London Games won't be over, there'll still be half the fun to go.