Competitive and recreational wheelchair sports have become increasingly popular, providing many opportunities for people with disabilities to receive athletic recognition, sharpen their skills and be part of a team. Wheelchair rugby is one of many wheelchair sports gaining traction around the world.
Wheelchair Rugby originated in 1977 with a group of Canadian quadriplegic athletes. Due to the intensity of the sport, wheelchair rugby was originally dubbed “murderball.” In 1993, the International Wheelchair Rugby Federation was established, and wheelchair rugby was officially recognized as sport for athletes with disabilities. The following year, wheelchair rugby became an official Paralympic sport and the world championships were held in Switzerland. Later, wheelchair rugby became a medal sport at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, and the United States took home the gold medal.
Wheelchair rugby is a mixed team sport, played by both male and female athletes who have a type of impairment that causes limited arm and leg function. Eligible disabilities include impaired muscle power, athetosis, impaired passive range of movement, hypertonia, ataxia or limb deficiency. Wheelchair rugby uses classifications to categorize players into different sport classes. There are seven sport classes: 0.5, 1.0, 1.5, 2.0, 2.5, 3.0 and 3.5. The 0.5 sport class means that a player has the most significant limitation in activity, while the 3.5 sport class indicates that a player has good arm and hand function, and some trunk function. Each team can have four players on the court at one time, but their total classification points cannot exceed 8.
Wheelchair rugby combines different elements of rugby, basketball and handball. The game is played with a volleyball on an indoor, basketball-sized court. Each team has an area referred to as the “key” where players can defend their goal line against the other team. This area is marked with cones. The players compete in manual wheelchairs specifically designed for the game. There are two types of wheelchair rugby chairs: offensive and defensive wheelchairs. Offensive wheelchairs are designed for speed and mobility and are equipped with a front bumper and wings to prevent other wheelchairs from hooking them. Players classified as 2.0, 2.5, 3.0 or 3.5 use offensive wheelchairs because they have more function. Defensive wheelchairs are equipped with bumpers that hook and hold other players. Players classified as 0.5, 1.0, and 1.5 use defensive wheelchairs because they have less function.
One game of wheelchair rugby consists of four, eight-minute quarters, with four timeouts for each team. Points are scored when a player carries the ball over the opposing team’s goal line. For a goal to count, two wheels of the ball carrier’s wheelchair must cross the goal line while maintaining firm possession of the ball. Players must dribble or pass the ball every 10 seconds, or the ball is given to the other team. Plus, the ball must advance over the mid-court line within 12 seconds, or the opposing team takes possession of the ball.
As a full contact sport, wheelchair to wheelchair contact is permitted in wheelchair rugby, but physical body contact between the players is not allowed. Players also cannot strike another player’s wheelchair anywhere behind the axle of the rear wheel in such a way that it causes the wheelchair to rotate horizontally or vertically.