THOUGHTS ON THE DEATH OF MARGARET MAUGHAN – A LEGENDARY PARALYMPIAN
from David Rhys Jones – former Patron of the British Wheelchair Bowls Association
In the 1980’s and 1990’s, when I was commentating on bowls for the BBC, I often mentioned to directors, producers and programme planners that it might be a good idea to cover sport for people with disabilities. I was, after all, the Patron of the British Wheelchair Bowls Association, and had first hand experience of how exciting wheelchair bowls could be – and I was sure that watching athletes with disabilities excelling in other sports would be of interest to viewers.
I always got the same response. Thanks for the suggestion. Yes, it was a good idea in principle – but, in practice, viewers would switch off in their thousands. It really wasn’t the sort of thing that would massage viewing figures. I took that as a ‘No!’
Just look what has happened since then. The Paralympics, quite rightly, is now treated on a par with the Olympics – and millions of viewers thrill to the strength, skill and courage of the Paralympians.
The remarkable Margaret Maughan, who was Britain’s first Paralympic gold medallist in 1960, was invited to carry the torch and light the cauldron to kickstart the Paralympics in London 52 years later in 2012. She saw the sea-change in the general public’s attitudes from pity to indifference to patronage right through to awe and admiration.
Margaret, who died in May, 2020, a month short of her 92nd birthday, was part of the Paralympics success story right from the start, when she came under the influence of the legendary Ludwig Guttmann at the spinal injuries unit at Stoke Mandeville, where he was extolling the benefits of sport as a therapy for people with spinal injuries.
After training as a science teacher, Margaret, who was born on 19 June, 1928, taught for a while in Jamaica, before obtaining a post with the education department in Malawi (formerly Nyasaland) – but, in 1959, before she had time to settle in her new role, she was involved in a motor accident, broke her back, and was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life.
Incredibly, just over a year after her accident – following treatment at Stoke Mandeville, where Margaret learnt new skills like archery and swimming – she was chosen to compete in the Ninth Stoke Mandeville Games, which took place in Rome, and which became known as the First Paralympic Games.
The Games themselves turned out to be a somewhat haphazard affair – though Margaret recalled how Ludwig Guttmann and the Pope stood side by side and delivered inspiring addresses at the Opening Ceremony.
After competing in the archery, Margaret had no idea how she had scored in the competition, and was already on the coach on her way back to the Village when it was discovered that she had won the event. Hurrying back to the stadium, she was duly awarded with the gold medal – the first ever achieved by a British competitor in the Paralympics!
Twenty years later, in 1980, having discovered bowls, and went on to win a lawn bowls gold medal with R Thompson in the women’s pairs at the Paralympics at Arnhem in the Netherlands.
I first met Margaret in the 1980’s, when she was the popular secretary of the British Wheelchair Bowls Association, and I can testify that she worked hard – and with considerable grace – to serve the interests of people in wheelchairs in all sports, but especially in bowls.
“I suppose I acquired a degree of notoriety when I became the first British competitor to win a gold medal at the Paralympics,” she once said modestly. She was a lovely person, thoughtful and kind, who always seemed to project a calm assurance to put people at their ease.
Nick Webborn, chair of the British Paralympic Association, said: “Although her passing is extremely sad the fact that she lived until the age of 91 is testament to the work of Sir Ludwig Guttmann who transformed the care of people with spinal cord injury, and that through sport people with disabilities can enjoy rich and fulfilling lives.”