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Able-bodied athletes get behind the wheel

Team Quebec Carl Pelletier, left, and Team Ontario Jesse McNalley gets tangled after a collision during the Canada Games wheelchair basketball gold medal game at Citadel High School in Halifax on February 17, 2011.

PAUL DARROW/paul darrow The Globe and Mail

As the buzzer seals Quebec's gold medal victory, wheelchair basketball star Maxime Poulin jumps up and runs into the stands to hug his parents.

Spectators at the Canada Games finals this week did not witness a miracle. Up to half the wheelchair athletes playing basketball here are able-bodied, the result of a deliberate national policy of broadening participation at the club and provincial levels of the sport.

The hard-fought finals between Quebec and Ontario combined the grace of ballet with the thuggery of chariot-racing. The trash-talking and fouls characteristic of the provinces' rivalry mushroomed as the smell of burning rubber spread through a local gym. The capacity crowd roared at each basket and winced as the players collided and tumbled to the court.

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Poulin put up 29 points and teammate Carl Pelletier nailed 28 to lead a 77-63 Quebec victory. Ontario star Dayton Sopha sank a game-high 35 points.

These players won't be able to go on to international competition, where only disabled participants are permitted. But the involvement at the lower levels of what are known colloquially as ABs [able-bodied players]is thought to have helped produce the strong teams Canada is fielding on the world stage.

"If you want to get better, you have to play with and against the best," national team member Patrick Anderson, often described as the greatest wheelchair basketball athlete in the world, said in an email from Germany, where he plays professionally for the Cologne 99ers.

"Over the past 20 years, many of the best players have been ABs. Further, if you're wired to be a high achiever ... on some level, you don't want to compete against ABs, you need to."

Fellow national team member David Durepos, who was in Halifax to watch his able-bodied daughter compete for New Brunswick, said that "you have to play better and smarter" when able-bodied players are thrown into the mix. "It really ups your game."

Wheelchair Basketball Canada president Steve Bach says this country was the first to make the shift to allowing able-bodied at the lower levels. It dates to the 1980s but can still be controversial.

"It is offensive to some people, donors and athletes alike, that feel that their game's being taken away from them by the able-bodied person," he acknowledged. "And my answer to them is, this is sport and everybody's entitled to play sport. We aren't taking you out of the sport, we're letting others into the sport. We think it's a better game because of it."

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The association's logic is simple: the chair is a piece of equipment, no different than what a cyclist or skier uses, that can be wielded by anyone.

And Bach believes the Canadian approach will continue to spread. "Mark my words, there will be a day when ... able-bodied players play the game at the international level," he said.

Some able-bodied participants at these games admit frustration at not being able to compete for their country. But most were glad for the chance to shine at the sport they've worked so hard to master.

"I do a little bit of pick-up basketball ... and I think this is more difficult," said Sopha, the Ontario star, whose cornrows, high-tops and budding entourage wouldn't be out of place on any neighbourhood court. "You could probably put Michael Jordan in a chair and he won't know how to push it and move."



To help balance the competition, players are rated from 0.5 to 4.5. This can be most simply understood as a measure of mobility. Able-bodied people will be rated 4.5, as might an amputee retaining the torso strength crucial for manoeuvring the chair and hauling in loose balls.

At the Canada Games level of play, each team was permitted a cumulative total of 15 points on the court. In practical terms this means no more than three of five players can be able-bodied.

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"You'll see a lot of teams that are balanced, where they might play two 4.5s, one mid-pointer, so a 2.5 to a 3.5 and then two low-pointers," explained Adam Loo, a dominant player on the Prince Edward Island team, himself able-bodied.

"The mid-pointer is more of a ball-carrier, the two low-pointers are picking and sealing and the two big guys are playing their big role, they're scorers."

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