Wheelchair Rugby, a history

The game (also known in America as “quad rugby” and, more ominously, “murderball”) was invented in the late 1970s, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Five wheelchair athletes (Jerry Terwin, Duncan Campbell, Randy Dueck, Paul LeJeune and Chris Sargent) with tetraplegia, (also known as quadriplegia - paralysis caused by illness or injury that results in the partial or total loss of use of all four limbs and torso) were looking for an alternative to wheelchair basketball and sled hockey. The creators wanted a sport that would allow players with reduced arm and hand function to participate equally. It has only minimal similarities to the able-bodied sport from which it takes its name, largely the scoring method.

Wheelchair rugby is a mixed-team sport for male and female athletes and contains elements of rugby, wheelchair basketball, ice hockey and handball. Each game is played by two teams of up to twelve players each, with four players from each team on the court at any one time and consists of four eight-minute quarters. The objective of the game is to score more goals than the opponent.

During game play, athletes are allowed to carry, dribble and pass the ball and they are also allowed to make contact between wheelchairs to block and hold opponents. As such, the sport can get rough, and players frequently collide and end up on the floor. Given their unique muscle function, athletes may use their stomach, back, chest, arms and legs to do everything from handling the ball to tackling other players.

Wheelchair Rugby, a competitive sport

In 1979, the first Canadian National Championships were held with the game first appearing outside Canada as a demonstration event at the Southwest State University in Minnesota, United States. The first American team was formed shortly after in 1981 and played under the team name of ‘The Wallbangers’ with the first North American tournament taking place between several teams from the United States and Canada in 1982.  

By 1989, the sport had gained a wider following with more athletes taking an interest internationally. The first international tournament took place in 1989 with Great Britain taking on both the United States and Canada in Toronto. This acted as the spark to ignite the fire that would begin a swift ascent in popularity for the sport.

Wheelchair rugby appeared at the 1990 World Wheelchair Games in Stoke Mandeville, Great Britain, as an exhibition event, with Australia taking part for the first time, which further cemented the sports rapid growth and popularity. Soon after, in 1993, fifteen countries were actively participating and it was recognised as an official sport for athletes with impairments with the International Wheelchair Rugby Federation (IWRF) being 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 (IPC). The first Wheelchair Rugby World Championships were held in 1995 in Nottwil, Switzerland, with eight teams competing.

Wheelchair Rugby, a Paralympic event

In the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games wheelchair rugby appeared as a demonstration sport with six countries competing. Medals were still awarded and counted towards the total number of medals received by a country. At the Sydney Paralympic games in 2000, it made its debut as a full medal status sport with the United States winning Gold.

During the build up to the 2004 Athens Games, a documentary maker filmed the stories of the wheelchair rugby players from the United States and Canada teams which led to the release (in 2005) of a film entitled ‘Murderball’. This created an international spectating audience that would come to admire the athletes for their dedication and the reputation of the sport. At the Beijing Paralympic Games in 2008, Chinese spectators fell in love with the event and attendance soared with respect for the hardiness of the participating athletes including Josie Pearson (Great Britain), the first female competitor in wheelchair rugby at the Paralympics.

Paralympic wheelchair rugby had now become a major international spectator sport with the tournament selling out in three days at the London 2012 Paralympics with around 12,000 supporters being able to attend the tournament and millions watching worldwide. 

In 2020, the games will be competed in Tokyo, Japan. Uncertainty of funding has plagued the attendance at the tournament with the UK team losing its UK Sport financial support due to the team failing to compete for a medal by one point at the 2016 games. The United States remain the team to beat, having won a medal in every Paralympic tournament since the sport was officially recognised.

There are now twenty-eight countries in three zones competing in IWRF competitions and listed on the world ranking list. The IWRF three zones currently include the Americas, with seven active countries; Europe, with sixteen active countries; and Asia-Oceania, with eight active countries.  With a further ten other countries developing national programmes, the sport is certain to be only more fiercely competed in future Paralympic Games.

Wheelchair Rugby at the Summer Paralympic Games

  • 1996 Atlanta, USA – 6 countries participated
  • 2000 Sydney, Australia – 8 countries participated
  • 2004 Athens, Greece – 8 countries participated
  • 2008 Beijing, China – 8 countries participated, mixed gender event
  • 2012 London, UK – 8 countries participated, mixed gender event

How wheelchair rugby has evolved

Wheelchair rugby athletes use a white volleyball (often a regulation ‘soft touch design’ with a slightly textured surface for grip). The balls are normally over-inflated compared to a volleyball, to provide a better bounce. Players use a variety of other personal equipment, such as gloves and applied adhesives to assist with ball handling due to their usually impaired gripping ability, and various forms of strapping to maintain a good seating position. Four cones, pylons, or markers are used to mark the goal lines.

Wheelchair rugby is played in a manual wheelchair specifically designed to ensure safety and fairness with the wheels slanted inwards. The rules include detailed specifications for the wheelchair. Key design features include a front bumper, designed to help strike and hold opposing wheelchairs, and wings, which are positioned in front of the main wheels to make the wheelchair more difficult to stop and hold. All wheelchairs must be equipped with spoke protectors, to prevent damage to the wheels, and an anti-tip device at the back. New players and players in developing countries sometimes play in wheelchairs that have been adapted for wheelchair rugby by the addition of temporary bumpers and wings.

Rules of wheelchair rugby

To be eligible to play wheelchair rugby, individuals must have a form of disability which results in a loss of function in both arms and legs. Most players have spinal cord injuries (usually at the cervical vertebrae) with full or partial paralysis of the legs and partial paralysis of the arms. Other disability groups who play include cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, amputations, polio, and other neurological conditions.  

Players are assigned a sport classification based on their level of disability by personnel with medical training, usually physicians, physiotherapists, or occupational therapists. Classifiers must also be trained in muscle testing and in the details of wheelchair. Each player on a team is allocated one of seven sport classes, ranging from 0.5 (the lowest functional level) to 3.5 (highest functional level). During competition, each team of four players is allowed to have only 8 points on the field of play at the same time. For example, a team could consist of four players: 3.5, 2.5, 1.5 and 0.5 (which adds up to 8). If a woman is on the court, that team is allowed an extra 0.5 point. If an athlete’s functional skills straddle two sport classes, officials assign the athlete the higher sport class to begin competition and leave him or her “in review” for observation during game play. As a result, you may see an athlete listed with an “R” following the sport class—for example, 1.5R. 

Athletes are permitted to appeal their classification if they feel they have not been properly evaluated. Competitors can be granted a permanent classification if they demonstrate a stable level of function over a series of classification tests. Whereas most wheelchair basketball athletes have normal arm and hand function, wheelchair rugby specifically emerged for athletes with limited or no function in three of four limbs. The main differences between athletes of different sport classes are trunk control and sitting balance, which allow them to lean forward and sideways to catch, carry, dribble and pass the ball as well as push the wheelchair and react to contact. 

Wheelchair rugby is played on an indoor court on the preferred surface of hardwood and adheres to the same measurements as a regulation basketball court (28 metres long by 15 metres wide). Any facility used for wheelchair basketball can also be used for wheelchair rugby. The required court markings are a centre line and circle, and a key area measuring 8 metres wide by 1.75 metres deep at each end of the court.

The goal line is the section of the end line within the key. Each end of the goal line is marked with a cone-shaped pylon. Players score by carrying the ball across the goal line. For a goal to count, two wheels of the player's wheelchair must cross the line while the player has possession of the ball. 

Men and women compete on the same teams and in the same competitions. Teams must field players with a mix of classification values, allowing players with different functional abilities to compete together to ensure that all eligible players have an opportunity to be an integral member of the team. 

A team is not allowed to have more than three players in their own key while they are defending their goal line. Offensive players are not permitted to remain in the opposing team's key for more than ten seconds. A player with possession of the ball must bounce or pass the ball within ten seconds. A team's back court is the half of the court containing the goal they are defending; their front court is the half containing the goal they are attacking. Teams have twelve seconds to advance the ball from their back court into the front court and a total of forty seconds to score a point or concede possession.

Whilst physical contact between wheelchairs is expected, any action that is deemed dangerous, such as striking another player from behind, is prohibited. Direct physical contact between players is also not permitted. Fouls are penalised by either a one-minute penalty, for defensive fouls and technical fouls, or a loss of possession, for offensive fouls. In some cases, a penalty goal may be awarded in lieu of a penalty. Common fouls include spinning (striking an opponent's wheelchair behind the main axle, causing it to spin horizontally or vertically), illegal use of hands or reaching in (striking an opponent with the arms or hands), and holding (holding or obstructing an opponent by grasping with the hands or arms, or falling onto them).

If the game is tied at the end of regulation play, three-minute overtime periods are played. The game clock is stopped when a goal is scored or in the event of a violation (E.g. the ball being played out of bounds or a foul). Players may only be substituted during a stoppage in play.

Governing bodies

The International Wheelchair Rugby Federation (IWRF) is the global governing body of the sport and was established 1993.

Great Britain Wheelchair Rugby (GBWR) is the governing body across the UK.

Regional clubs

The BPA have created an online directory, Parasport, where you can search for and find out about sport and physical activity in your area.

UK Wide

Clubs can be found through Great Britain Wheelchair Rugby’s’  Find a Club

There are currently 28 Regional Clubs for participants over the age of 12 and there are 8 junior Programmes for players aged 8 to 17.

References
https://gbwr.org.uk/
https://gbwr.org.uk/home/clubs-and-competitions/find-a-club/
https://www.paralympic.org/wheelchair-rugby
http://www.iwrf.com/?page=about_our_sport
https://www.teamusa.org/US-Paralympics/athlete-classifications/wheelchair-rugby/
https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2012/aug/24/paralympic-games-2012-wheelchair-rugby
http://disabilityhorizons.com/2017/09/what-does-a-paralympic-wheelchair-rugby-player-do-when-funding-stops/