Wheelchair sports face dilemma as the able-bodied join in

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The Independent Online
WHEN Richard Young turned out for the Tottenham Tigers wheelchair basketball team, spectators were incredulous at being told he was able-bodied . . . not because he was playing wheelchair sport, but because he was so good at it.

Wheelchair sports face a dilemma over the increasing numbers of the able-bodied who want to play. At present, the numbers are still small: two in wheelchair racing, several dozen in wheelchair basketball. Some people find the notion distasteful, but for many the aim is reverse integration.

Mr Young, 23, who plays for the Tigers with his wheelchair-bound father, said: 'The idea is to fight the ignorant kind of view you get in the London Marathon, the tears-in-the-eyes, lump-in-the-throat, 'Aren't they brave', all that cobblers. It's trying to get across the idea that wheelchair basketball is a sport in its own right. I've always been in and out of a wheelchair because of my father - it's second nature to me.'

The phenomenon arose when players' friends and relatives went to training sessions to help, and became involved in playing. At the same time, the sport's increasing popularity - and television coverage - meant that the number of clubs was growing but there were not enough players.

The Great Britain Wheelchair Basketball Association's Development Division, for new teams, now allows two able-bodied players in each five- man side. Phil Craven, the association's chairman, said: 'Most people who try our game do it for one of three reasons: one, to help out; two, to have a go; or three, because they think it's going to be an easy touch to international recognition. They then find it's a bit more difficult than that.

'But my main concern is that we provide a sport for people who can't play football or rugby. So we need to be protective of them.'

His fears are echoed by Steve Spilka, the association's national development officer. 'There's also the fear of opening the gates to the able- bodied. There are between 500 and 600 of us playing at the moment. If you had one or two thousand ABs they could decide 'we don't want disabled people playing this game' and vote us out'.'

Wheelchair racers are equally divided. Chris Hallam, Paralympic medallist, London Marathon winner and MBE for services to the diasabled, exemplifies the ambivalence felt by many: 'I'm all for it, while it's in its infancy.'

The British Wheelchair Racing Association canvassed its members via its newsletter. 'We had a lot of letters, some irate, some very supportive,' said Peter Carruthers, the acting chairman. 'The BWRA policy is that we are a sports organisation, and if able-bodied people choose to race in a wheelchair we don't make any distinction.'

Dan Sadler, 18, son of a former chairman of the association, became involved via his father, but has received abusive phone calls and met hostility at race meetings. Partly this is simply the shock of the unexpected. 'There are very few races organised solely by the BWRA,' Mr Carruthers said. 'We are usually the wheelchair section of someone else's race, and the organisers assume that wheelchair racers will be disabled. Some people think the athletes are cheating. Dan's got himself into a little bit of a fix really. I sometimes want to hit him over the head with a frying pan and say to him, 'Be sensible. You know you're going to cause trouble if you win. Why don't you come second?' '