Imagine going to an international sporting tournament in which the competitors are only allowed to go through the back door, can’t get into the changing rooms and have only one toilet between forty-odd players. During the recent World Cup, did Rooney have to pay for his own Travel Lodge and arrive ready-dressed in his kit? When Saurez had the pre-match shits, did he have to wait in a queue of three blokes and a woman before relieving his nerves in the only toilet available to him? And when the Queen parachuted into the Olympics, did she have to do so on a stomach full of Sausage and Egg McMuffin because some tosser had parked in the disabled space outside her preferred café? Probably not: but then she’s not an international player in the Tri-Nations Tournament of wheelchair rugby…For the uninitiated, wheelchair rugby pretty much follows the structure of the more usual rugby union - except that the players are in wheelchairs. Scrummages happen by a line of three wheelchairs going head to head with the opposition’s line to push the advantage, kicks are done with the heel of the hand, mauls are called when the ball-carrier is hemmed in by at least two other players, and tackles are carried out by smashing your wheelchair into your opponent as hard as you fucking can. Be aware: wheelchair rugby is not for the faint-hearted.
The point of having this version is not to have some fluffy physical lip-service for those poor chaps who can’t walk very well; it’s to have a bloody good game for anyone who wants to play. It’s a great leveller and the Tri-Nations was played by men and women ranging from their teens to their fifties. Able-bodied people played alongside those with disabilities and the difference between these last two groups was not always apparent on the pitch. It was a real-life version of the Guinness advert in which a group of friends have a great game of wheelchair basketball and at the end, all but one get out of their chairs, then they all go to the pub together. The reality of course would be that the poor sod in the wheelchair would have to sit outside in the rain as the pub wouldn’t be accessible, or he’d be on shorts as having the Guinness shits isn’t much fun when you’re sharing the disabled toilet with the pub mop and bucket, boxes of paper-towels and a couple shagging in the corner.So for two days at the Wheelchair Rugby Sevens Tri Nations, I shouted, screamed, clapped and cheered. I chucked dozens of pounds at the children to go and buy junk from the catering van so as not to disturb my enjoyment of the games (Beckham buying a sandwich from a guy with the same blue glove on for two days? Don’t think so…). I watched men and women slam into each other so hard that they were thrown from their chairs, snapping ratchet-straps as they went. I saw wick teenagers whip around three opponents, only to be sandwiched to a halt by two eighteen-stone props, and I breathed in relief as players gave-up their advantage in order to hang on to a member of the opposition so that they didn’t up-end and slam, teeth-first, into the floor.
My point being, that all those magnificent people entertained me for a whole weekend with their fantastic sport. In that hall they were leaders of men. They were sportsmen and sportswomen, wheel-chair mechanics and captains of teams. In that hall they were fit, capable, feisty, stroppy, hilariously funny and they were the same as everyone else. No-one looked, no-one stared (well, they did when the ref took his leg off and waved it at the kids). Amputees chatted with people with cerebral palsy and the conversations weren’t What’s wrong with you? Or Can your friend understand me? The conversations were What position are you? Is the crapper empty yet: I had two McMuffins For breakfast or Are you going to try and nick your Wales shirt?The sad thing for me was that the moment those magnificent sports-men and women left that hall either to the crapper they had to queue for, or the changing room they couldn’t get into, or the car that their partners had to help them load up, their disabilities became apparent once more. They would return (via the fire exit as the main door had a flight of steps) to offices that refuse to adapt to them, homes they can’t get around, jobs that are presumed to be beyond them and shops and restaurants that can’t be bothered to accommodate them. This is not a bitch about a tournament that didn’t manage everyone’s needs as well as it might - or as well as it would for those without disabilities - this is a bitch about a society that’s missing out on all that energy, all those skills, all that humour, all that resourcefulness, all that willingness to hit the crap out of someone else if that’s what they have to do in order to get the job done.
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