My latest posting for BT Storytellers:
There is a loud crash as two vehicles collide head-on, immediately followed by a scraping sound of metal on metal as a third vehicle joins the pile-up and is overturned.
We are not on the
motorway. We are in an arena. Welcome to the violent world of wheelchair
rugby. The action is frenetic and the hits are big. It's not by chance
that the sport was originally dubbed 'murderball'.
I'm at the Olympic Basketball Arena, where Australia, Sweden, Canada and Great Britain (ranked second, fourth, fifth and sixth in the world respectively) are doing battle in The London International Invitational Wheelchair Rugby Tournament. The event is part of the London Prepares series.
As well as enabling LOCOG to test vital areas of operation ahead of the 2012 Games, the programme gives the athletes an opportunity to sample the facilities and get a feel for the venues.
The journey to the venue also presents me with a great opportunity to see how the Olympic Park is shaping up. The Basketball Arena feels like the furthest point away from the Stratford entrance to the park, so the journey from gate to door is like a mini-tour of many of the venues.
There is expectancy in the flurry of activity devoted to getting everything ready for 27th July. The paths and other surfaces are laid, lampposts are being wired up, even the planting is starting to emerge from the flowerbeds.
In the chaos of this enormous building site nestle some iconic buildings. The Velodrome has an elegance and simplicity in the way that it uses the shape of the track contained inside to create the silhouette of the building. I have often admired it from the road, especially as it sits in a location I came to know and love in a previous life when it held the Eastway cycle track, the site of many thrills and spills in my enthusiasm for cycling.
This visit offers me my first close look at the Aquatic Centre, designed by acclaimed architect Zaha Hadid. The main body of the structure sits caged between two temporary wings that house additional seating and which will be removed after the Games. It has the feel of an airship in a hangar, awaiting the opportunity to fly.
The Basketball Arena itself is less impressive. A temporary structure, the outside resembles a collection of giant springs that have been shrink-wrapped in white plastic. Inside, the 12,000 seat venue has a bit of a circus tent feel to it, although when filled, the steep banks of seats pouring down onto a single court are certain to produce an electric atmosphere.
But for this event there are only a few hundred tickets available, so the venue feels quiet and empty. That said, once the action starts it only takes a few big hits before the crowd offer enthusiastic vocal support for the home team.
Wheelchair rugby has its origins in Canada in the late seventies, when
the only wheelchair team sport widely played was basketball. For
athletes with upper limb impairments, the hand control necessary to
dribble and shoot made basketball unsuitable.
A group of wheelchair athletes conceived a new team sport that would allow tetraplegic (also called quadriplegic) players to compete. Where wheelchair basketball involved limited contact between wheelchairs that comes from players blocking each other, the aggressive full contact element of this newly conceived sport led to the original name: 'murderball'.
The sport has come a long way since then, and gained full-medal status at the Sydney Paralympics in 2000.
Even as a spectator sport, Wheelchair Rugby is not for the feint of heart; players are often overturned, and injuries are not uncommon. In 2010, GB captain Steve Brown took a hit from two players simultaneously during a match in Germany. The collision resulted in Brown breaking his sternum and four or five ribs as well as suffering bruising around his heart.
The aggressive element means that first impressions of wheelchair rugby can be interesting. Because many players (but certainly not all) are wheelchair users as the result of injury, some people take the view that they should 'know better' than to participate in such a dangerous sport.
As a wheelchair user myself, I certainly feel that I have as much right to participate in 'dangerous' sporting activities as anyone else. It may be uncomfortable viewing for people to see upturned wheelchairs with players on their backs, waiting to be righted by members of the coaching staff. But watch the opposition. I can guarantee that they will seek to take advantage of their opponents being a man down before they stop to offer assistance.
This is a good example of the ways in which disability sport can contribute to a better understanding of disability that can help to shape social attitudes. Let's be clear: I'm not suggesting that an upturned wheelchair user should always be ignored. But equally, calling an ambulance at the first sign of difficulty is inappropriate. A better response would be to check with the person concerned to see what assistance they need (if any).
It's important to remember that generalisations and stock responses toward disabled people are as likely to be inaccurate as those directed at any other section of society.
There has been much talk about the legacy of the Games. This isn't just about improved transport links or more housing in east London. It could also mean a better understanding of different forms of disability.
The Paralympic Games provide a unique showcase to demonstrate how exciting disability sport can be. It is also an opportunity for people to get a measure of the levels of personal sacrifice made by the participants. These are elite athletes at the peak of their abilities, often with less support than their able-bodied counterparts.
They don't need to be told how brave they are. They do need a rousing cheer and enthusiastic support.