Dr. Peter Blum, director of the Heidelberg Municipal Archives, gives a speech at the opening ceremony of the exhibit "The Paralympics Spirit --From Heidelberg to Beijing" in Heidelberg, Germany, on July 26. (Xinhua/Heidelberg Municipal Archives)
BEIJING, Aug. 10 (Xinhua) -- The German city of Heidelberg has a reputation for research, romance and a beer in between; the centuries-old university town famous for its castle ruins has inspired Nobel laureates, philosophers such as Hegel, and writers such as Goethe and Twain. Yet few people today may be aware that almost 45 years ago this month, Heidelberg hosted the Paralympics, inspiring wheelchair-bound athletes from around the world to strive for excellence despite their disabilities.
An exhibit "The Paralympics Spirit -- From Heidelberg to Beijing" that opened on July 26 in Heidelberg's Olympic Training Center and runs through September may deepen Heidelberg's historical association with the Paralympics.
Co-organized by the Beijing Municipal Archives and the Heidelberg Municipal Archives, it showcases the history of the Paralympics and the achievements of its participants in a multicultural context just in time for the Paralympics that are set to be held in Rio this September.
Today's Paralympics for athletes that fall into different impairment categories are a major international multi-sport event held in tandem with the Winter and Summer Olympic Games. The Paralympics' humble beginnings reach back to World War II, when Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, a German-Jewish doctor who had fled to Britain to escape Nazi persecution, organized a sports competition for British war veterans with spinal cord injuries, the so-called Stoke Mandeville Games.
Heidelberg mayor Dr. Joachim Gerner, Xing Weiping, deputy consul general from the Chinese Consulate in Frankfurt, and Prof. Hanns Michael Hoelz, managing director of the Deutsche Bank AG and member of the German Sports Aid Foundation, at the unveiling of the exhibit "The Paralympics Spirit -- From Heidelberg to Beijing" in Heidelberg, Germany, on July 26. (Xinhua/Heidelberg Municipal Archives)
The first official Paralympics were held in Rome in 1960, and in August 1972, Heidelberg jumped in for Munich at the last minute to host the games at its Olympic Training Center. Roughly 1,000 disabled athletes from 41 nations attended.
Besides being a dignified platform for disabled athletes to compete with their peers, the Paralympics raise awareness of the everyday challenges people with disabilities face, a prime example being the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
As a developing country, Chinese people with disabilities benefited from their country hosting the Paralympics as measures were taken to facilitate their integration into society, such as developing accessible public facilities, making mobility easier and more convenient, and offering rehabilitation services, education and employment for them.
In an exclusive e-mail interview with Xinhua, Dr. Peter Blum, the director of the Heidelberg Municipal Archives and the mastermind behind the exhibit, looked back at the opening with a lot of optimism and enthusiasm.
"Of course we would have appreciated even more visitors on opening day at this historic locale of the 1972 Paralympics," he said. "But we should remember that Heidelberg is not Beijing (Heidelberg has 160,000 inhabitants compared to Beijing's 22 million plus)."
Blum said that next to staff from the Heidelberg and Beijing Municipal Archives and the Chinese Consulate in Frankfurt, some of the contemporary witnesses from the 1972 Heidelberg Paralympics were present for the opening.
Hennes Luebbering, former Paralympics athlete and winner of several medals in different disciplines, is one of the special guests at the opening ceremony of the exhibit "The Paralympics Spirit -- From Heidelberg to Beijing" in Heidelberg, Germany, on July 26. (Xinhua/Heidelberg Municipal Archives)
For example, Joerg Schmekel, who had helped organize the 1972 Paralympics, and Hennes Luebbering, a wheelchair-bound athlete who had won multiple medals, attended.
Another guest was Uwe Kraeuter, a former Heidelberg student who had left to work in Beijing in the 1970's and went on to marry the Chinese movie actress Shen Danping. Kraeuter is now a well-known cultural ambassador between the two countries.
When asked about the content of the exhibit, Blum said there are 40 display panels in English that give an overview of the Paralympics' history starting from 1972 with an outlook on the Winter Paralympics that will be held in Beijing in 2022.
"The Heidelberg Municipal Archives have also contributed some display panels on local media reports of the 1972 Paralympics. You can just feel the curiosity and enthusiasm of Heidelberg's residents at the time," Blum said.
Besides display panels and historical photos, the exhibit also features a short film with English and Chinese subtitles on the Beijing Paralympics produced by the Beijing Municipal Archives. Visitors can even try out conventional and racing wheelchairs to get a better feeling for what it is like to have impaired mobility, which adds an interactive dimension to the exhibit.
Blum said the aim of the municipal archives in jointly organizing the exhibit was not only a reflection on the past of the Paralympics, but more importantly a projection of a future vision -- namely, the social inclusion of disabled people. He believed archives have a special role to play in this.
He suggested that archives should make their cultural heritage accessible to help achieve a solution to both contemporary and future problems. "One could say that today's archives have a socio-political task, so to say, a task that transcends borders and cultural barriers," Blum said.
A case in point: Blum is working on an upcoming exhibit on the flight of German Jews to Shanghai during World War II, which will be shown at the Jewish Refugees Museum in Shanghai. Given the refugee crisis in Europe, it will be a very timely exhibit.
Blum has over a decade of experience cooperating with the Beijing Municipal Archives. He first visited the Beijing Municipal Archives in 2004 and returned the next year with his wife and four children in tow.
"No one would deny that there were occasional frictions and misunderstandings. But the archivists of the two countries recognized the benefits they would reap from cooperation, despite different languages, traditions and customs, which has resulted in resilient and friendly ties," he said. In fact, Blum is very pleased with the "guanxi" system, or social ties, he has managed to establish after he first set foot in China.
Surprisingly, when asked how the idea for the Paralympics exhibit was hatched, Blum said the upcoming Paralympics in Rio were more of a lucky coincidence. He first came up with the idea two or three years ago while touring the Beijing Municipal Archives, where he was shown documents and artifacts from the Beijing Paralympics in 2008.
Visitors browse the exhibit "The Paralympics Spirit -- From Heidelberg to Beijing" in Heidelberg, Germany, on July 26. In the middle is Joerg Schmekel, himself disabled, who played a key role in organizing the 1972 Paralympics. (Xinhua/Heidelberg Municipal Archives)
Since then, Blum has been involved in multiple China-related projects which keep him on his toes, for example, he helped the Jinan Municipal Archives locate documents in German archives, especially as pertains the former German railway station in Jinan. What's more, China Central Television (CCTV) invited him to participate in the making of a documentary on the Long March on site in Shaanxi and Gansu Provinces, during which he was always "followed by a microphone, two ground cameras and a camera drone," Blum said.
When asked how the cooperation between the Heidelberg Municipal Archives and its Chinese counterparts could be improved, Blum believed that learning by doing is best. "As is so often the case, there is a sheer endless number of ideas and themes. Both sides should display open-mindedness, curiosity and some courage," he said.
The Paralympics exhibit is scheduled to move to the Saarland State Archives in September to coincide with the Paralympics in Rio, but the launch date has yet to be determined, Dr. Doerte Kaufmann, vice director of the Saarland State Archives, told Xinhua via email. She is playing a pivotal role in bringing the exhibit from Heidelberg to the Saarland together with the Saarland Sports Archives.
"By organizing this exhibit, we hope to inform visitors about the past of the Paralympics and raise their awareness for the importance of archiving sports documents," David Kraus, the director of the Saarland Sports Archives, said in an email interview with Xinhua. "Moreover, we would like to draw attention to the integrative power of sports, especially for the disabled, and the lack of its historical documentation in the Saarland so far."
As opposed to the Heidelberg Municipal Archives, Kraus said neither his archives nor the Saarland State Archives have cooperated directly with Chinese archives or organizations to date, but he and his colleague Kaufmann are fully aware of the opportunities such cooperation presents.
"Especially for the Saarland State Archives, which, compared to other state archives, have very limited financial and human resources, cooperation is indispensable," Kaufmann said. "As a border region, the Saarland has already gathered experience in international cooperation, which offers terrific opportunities to broaden one's horizon and gain new perspectives as an archivist," she said.
Blum has a similar opinion that cooperation as exemplified between the Heidelberg and Beijing Municipal Archives on the Paralympics exhibit is definitely rewarding. "Cooperation is always worth it; you can accomplish so many positive things. Exciting experiences and new friendships are guaranteed every time," he said.