Wheelchair Rugby is a unique team sport played by quadriplegic men and women, one that combines elements of basketball, handball and ice hockey and has been captivating the crowds at the Paralympic Games in the Chinese capital Beijing over the last couple of days.
The object of the game is to cross the opposing team’s goal line with both wheels and in control of the ball, which is the same size and shape of a regulation volleyball. The ball can be carried on the lap, but must be passed or bounced at least once every 10 seconds.
Contact between the wheelchairs is permitted and collisions are frequent in the course of a match, which consist of four eight-minutes quarters, with four players on the court at any one time. Each player is classified in one of seven classes between 0.5 and 3.5 points depending on their functional ability and no team can field a quartet of players with more than eight points on the court at any one time.
The fast-growing mixed sport, which is played indoors on a regulation sized basketball court, was invented in the Canadian city of Winnipeg back in 1977 by a group of quadriplegic athletes looking for an alternative to Wheelchair Basketball and today is enjoyed by more than 20 nations around the world.
Spreading the word
The first international tournament took place in 1982 involving teams from Canada and USA. The sport continued to grow and before the decade ended, the first international tournament involving a team from outside North America took place in Toronto with Great Britain joining USA and the host nation.
This competition proved to be a breakthrough in developing international competition with Wheelchair Rugby appearing at the World Wheelchair Games in 1990 as an exhibition event.
Three years later, with 15 countries actively participating, the sport was recognised as an official international sport for athletes with a disability and the International Wheelchair Rugby Federation (IWRF) was established as a sport section of the International Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Sports Federation (ISMWSF).
In 1994, Wheelchair Rugby was officially recognised by the International Paralympic Committee as a Paralympic sport and the following year the first Wheelchair Rugby World Championships were held in Switzerland with eight teams competing.
Wheelchair Rugby appeared at the Atlanta Games in 1996 as a demonstration sport with USA claiming the honours, just as they did four years later in Sydney when the sport was included in the Paralympic Games programme as a full medal sport for the first time with Australia and New Zealand claiming silver and bronze.
The 2004 Games in Athens heralded another milestone with the New Zealand Wheelbacks claiming the gold medal, although USA did return to the top of the podium at the World Championships two years later and were favourites to regain the Olympic crown among the eight teams competing in Beijing.
The Americans are now only one victory away from the gold medal, having edged Great Britain 35-32 in the first of the semi-finals at the USTB Gymnasium on Monday with Will Groulx scoring 13 of his side’s goals, one fewer than Troye Collins managed for Great Britain who are yet to win a major medal in the sport.
Standing in the way of another American gold medal in the Olympics are Australia, the world’s fifth ranked side who needed overtime to beat Canada 41-40 in the other semi-final and preserve their unbeaten record. Ryley Batt was top scorer with an impressive 23 goals as Australia prevented a North American battle for the title.
Great Britain and Canada will contest the bronze medal on Tuesday, while defending champions New Zealand will meet Germany in the fifth place playoff after defeating China 47-34 and Japan 39-38 respectively. The two Asian sides will contest the seventh place playoff with China, who only took up Wheelchair Rugby three years ago, hoping for a first ever win over Japan.