Tokyo 2020 Paralympics and Why You Should Watch Wheelchair Rugby

Everyone gets very excited about the Summer Olympics, especially this year because of all the new youth-oriented sports getting added (albeit as a test run). But in the midst of all the excitement, a crucial event for advocacy often gets forgotten: the Paralympics. Not to be confused with the Special Olympics, an event for people with developmental and neurological disorders to compete in, the Paralympics refers to an event where wheelchair users compete in a variety of adapted sports. Just as intense as the Olympics in most respects, the Paralympics features sports such as judo, basketball, and power soccer. Surprising isn’t it? As impressive as these feats are, the most spectacular of the Paralympic sports has to be wheelchair rugby, or as it is better known, “murderball.” 

Wheelchair rugby, unlike its able-bodied counterpart, is a mixed-gender team sport, though it is male-dominated. It was invented in 1977 by Canadian quadriplegic athletes who wanted an alternative to wheelchair basketball that would allow players with reduced upper limb function to partake on equal terms. Just like in traditional rugby, wheelchair contact is permitted and is in fact an essential part of the game as they are used to block and hold opponents.

The sport was first played on a professional level in Australia in the 1981 games, and the United States had their first team formed in 1982. By the 2000 Sydney Summer Paralympic, wheelchair rugby was a medaled sport. 

The amount of contact is in fact what makes wheelchair rugby so exciting. It is essentially a loud, raucous event, often involving punctured tires and flipped over wheelchairs. As a result, players need to be very strong, with excellent stamina and unusual strength. They also must have excellent control of the ball and be able to think on their feet at all times.

The rules of the game are a combination of soccer, basketball, and of course rugby. The result is a four per team sport where the point is to carry the ball over the opponent’s goal line (by having at least two wheels over the goal line and being in control of the ball). But it’s not so easy as it seems: from when they gain possession, a team has just 40 seconds to score a goal. Players can pass or roll the ball, but any use of the lower limbs is not allowed. The ball must be passed every 10 seconds, making time management an essential aspect of the game.

Teams are formed in a rather unusual way. The players are classified according to their body’s functional level and assigned a point value ranging from 0.5 to 3.5. The total classification value of players on the court at one time must not exceed 8 points.  The classification process itself involves an assessment of muscular strength and range of motion of each individual athlete, then their performance on the court.

A great introduction to wheelchair rugby is the documentary “Murderball.” This thrilling film tells the story of the sport through the eyes of professional players from team USA. It features terrific scenes of the game being played on a professional level, and side steps irrelevant issues such as the challenges of being in a wheelchair. The players of the team are portrayed as tough, highly skilled athletes who challenge all the stereotypes of disability.

Wheelchair rugby at the Paralympics will be played at the Yoyogi National Stadium at the end of August, starting on the 26th and with the victory ceremony taking place on the 30th.