The return of rugby sevens at last year’s Summer Olympic Games not only gave a platform for the sport to showcase the best it has to offer, but also captured the imagination of the Great British public watching back home as men’s team returned to the United Kingdom with a silver medal and the women’s side narrowly missing out on bronze.
But while the Olympics has only just allowed rugby to return, the sport has been one of the fan favourites in the Paralympics for the last 20 years. Since wheelchair rugby was introduced to the Paralympic Games in 1996, it has come on leaps and bounds and proved to be one of the must-watch events at Rio 2016.
Great Britain suffered two agonising defeats by the slimmest of margins in Rio, losing to Australia 53-51 before suffering a 50-49 loss to Canada. That didn’t stop the sport gaining huge attention back home, and there were plenty of celebrations when Britain beat Sweden for the second Games in a row to claim fifth place overall.
However, Britain will not have the chance to go one step further and challenge for a medal – not if UK Sport has anything to do with it. Wheelchair rugby was one of seven national sports to have its funding completely removed by UK Sport – and the only Paralympic sport at that – which not only leaves its competitors facing the prospect of missing out on Tokyo 2020, but losing their main source of income and being forced to rely on disabled benefits.
It hardly preaches the “Legacy” that was supposedly left by London 2012, but rather than let the blow end their chances of going to Japan in three years’ time, Great Britain Wheelchair Rugby are launching a crowd funding campaign to try and raise the £3m that UK Sport has taken away from them over the next Paralympic cycle.
With the campaign being led by England full-back Mike Brown, who himself admits his first sight of wheelchair rugby in 2012 “inspired him”, GBWR hope to raise the £3m to fund not only their quest to Tokyo 2020, but also training, travel and the ability to compete in international competitions that will help both the athletes and coaches test themselves against the best in the world.
To put that into comparison, UK Sport has allocated £345m across 31 different Olympic and Paralympic sports to fund this four-year cycle.
“After watching the team for the first time at London 2012, I was inspired,” Brown said. “The guys are an unbelievable testament to overcoming hardship and I am proud to be an ambassador to the team, and even prouder to be helping to spearhead this campaign.”
The GBWR chief executive, David Pond, accused UK Sport of “betraying” the legacy plans from the Olympics five years ago, and issued a plea to anyone who can help fund their path to Tokyo to help in whatever way they can.
“UK Sport’s decision is a fatal blow to the sport and the team’s hopes of competing at Tokyo 2020,” Pond said. “It’s not just the funding that is lost, it is the hopes and dreams of the individual athletes who have already overcome incredible personal challenges to be in a position now where they are able to represent their nation with pride. The stories behind these individuals are a constant source of inspiration to their communities and the public at large. The decision is shameful and a betrayal of the London 2012 legacy.
“We’re now asking for everyone in the UK who is in a position to help us, to be part of the next chapter of GBWR by donating to our campaign. No amount is too small, and your support will help individual athletes on the road to Tokyo.”
While the focus of the rugby world is on the Six Nations right now, it’s worth remembering that sport is still an individual’s livelihood, no matter at what level.
Brown added: “The funding is absolutely vital. I appeal to everyone to help in any way they can and to help secure the future of GBWR.”
You can donate to the crowd funding campaign at http://gbwr.org.uk/Reuse content