Poet’s Corner: Dispatches from the Olympic Games

Poetic acrobatics, endurance and musings by Priscila Uppal - a London 2012 LRC blog.

Sep 01

Wheelchair Warriors: Murderball

Photo by Tim and Selena Middleton

The majority of the people here at Olympic Park have never seen Paralympic sport before. While it is just as exciting as other more conventional and recognizable sport competitions, Paralympic sport does sometimes require explanation for the uninitiated. At the venues, before events, videos inform audiences about the various disability categories and rules of the games and races, which leads to more knowledgeable and engaged spectators, which can then lead to enthusiastic long-term fans.

One of the ways many people in North America first became aware of Paralympic sport was when the documentary Murderball (2005; directed by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro) was nominated for an Academy Award. For those who haven’t seen it, although it follows the path of Team U.S.A. Wheelchair Rubgy on its way to the Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece, there is also a great deal of focus on Team Canada’s Wheelchair Rugby Team as well, since Canada emerges as a significant rival after the larger-than-life Paralympic legend Joe Soares, in a fit of rage at being cut from the U.S. team due to the decline in his abilities that naturally occurs with age, decides to coach the Canadians. Labelled a traitor to his country by the American athletes, Joe Soares lives, breathes, sleeps, yells, spits, punches Wheelchair Rugby (or, as it is sometimes called, Murderball, which was invented in 1977 by Canadians by the way—the first international tournament took place in Toronto in 1989) to the extent that he is oblivious to his own insensitivity to his long-suffering wife when they go out to dinner to celebrate their wedding anniversary and he toasts Team Canada instead of her. (He apparently asked the directors to cut this scene, which they refused to do, as it revealed so much of Joe’s character and his obsession with the sport.)

And what a character he is. As are many of the other young men one meets throughout the documentary through the lens of full-contact rugby, played in custom-made manual wheelchairs, which look like metal war vehicles, on a basketball court. This is not a sport for the faint of heart. It’s fast-paced and ruthless as the teams crash into each other, frequently toppling those inside of the wheelchairs, as they attempt to carry a ball over a line. It’s also mentally challenging, as these athletes trash talk each other incessantly (as does Joe from the sidelines) and are not above personal jabs. Bruises on the outside and the inside are part of the game.

Off the court, one discovers the same range of personalities you might find in any group of young men, including a cocky one, a sensitive one, a funny one, and even a playboy. You also learn some surprising things about the private and personal lives of these disabled young men. According to one young man, picking up women in a wheelchair isn’t that difficult. Apparently, they are comforted by the non-threatening exterior, which allows for more meaningful conversation to flow more naturally from the beginning. Once they are assured of the fact that sexual activity is still possible, they welcome the experimentation the novel circumstances involve.

But the most surprising claim, and one which I have heard already this week by several Paralympic athletes, is given the opportunity to have one’s able body back, many would outright refuse. The disability took their lives in new but also valuable directions. Being on a Paralympic Wheelchair Rubgy Team has introduced them to new friends, it has allowed them to travel and see the world, to represent their country, and to be a role model in their communities. Who knows if they would have so many strong friendships and unique experiences if illness or accident hadn’t interfered in what they thought was the course of their lives. This is important to keep in mind, I think, while we watch Paralympic sports, because it makes us question any feelings of pity we might harbour for the challenges of the athletes. They don’t want our pity. They want our applause.

I have tickets to Wheelchair Rugby on September 5th. The documentary has prepared me, in part, for what I’m about to see. (And perhaps I will actually see one or two of these same athletes compete for Team U.S.A or Team Canada.) It has also made me appreciate how cruel turns of fate can sometimes lead you to interesting places. If not for my own experience of disability through my father, I’m not sure I would have proposed this project or written many of these poems.

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Don’t miss “Three Views of a Ramp,” a poem written by Priscila Uppal inspired by wheelchairs, sports, and podiums.

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