#21: History of Wheelchair Rugby: 1993 - 1996

Written by Pawel Zbieranowski

Following the establishment of the International Wheelchair Rugby Federation (IWRF) on August 6, 1993, and its subsequent inclusion into the structure of the International Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Sports Federation (ISMWSF) on August 27 of the same year, the sport of Wheelchair Rugby was officially internationally recognized. From here, the real work began. The main objective of the IWRF at the time was the achieve Paralympic Sport status for Wheelchair Rugby from the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), which would then permit the IWRF to apply as a Demonstration Sport at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games. However, in order to fulfill IPC criteria for Paralympic Sport status, the IWRF would need to have an administrative structure as well as established international competitions, such as Zonal and World Championships. The race against time at begun.

As President of the IWRF, Pawel Zbieranowski was the representative of Wheelchair Rugby at the IPC Sport Council (SC) in October 1993 and at the ISMWSF Sport Coordinating Committee (SCC), where he began official negotiations regarding obtaining Paralympic Sport status. During this time, he also met with the Atlanta Paralympic Organizing Committee (APOC) to begin negotiations surrounding the inclusion of Wheelchair Rugby as a demonstration sport at the Atlanta Paralympic Games. The negotiations were complex, as they involved proving that the IWRF was in the process of fulfilling the IPC criteria, convincing the APOC to accept Wheelchair Rugby at the Games as a demonstration sport, and competing with other sports for the number of athletes per sport allocated to the Games. This last aspect took a surprising turn during the ISMWSF SCC meeting in Sheffield, Great Britain, on December 4-5, 1994. Pawel was unable to attend this meeting, and the President of the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF), Phil Craven, proposed a motion that the SCC write a letter of support for Wheelchair Rugby to the IPC and APOC. Unfortunately, other ISMWSF sports opposed this motion. Phil withdrew this motion and instead wrote a letter on behalf of the IWBF in support of Wheelchair Rugby’s quest. Phil Craven has shown unwavering support for Wheelchair Rugby and the IWRF over the years, and has served as the IPC President since 2001.

The events which took place between 1993 and 1995 were crucial to the IPC granting Wheelchair Rugby Paralympic Sport status. On October 14-15, 1993, a presentation was made to the IPC SC when then officially approved Wheelchair Rugby’s application and forwarded it to the IPC Paralympic Program Committee (PPC). Later that year, on December 13-14, 1993, the IPC PPC officially recommended Exhibition Sport status for Wheelchair Rugby at the Atlanta Games, meaning a single Wheelchair Rugby game would take place. The following year, on August 29, 1994, the IWRF submitted a second application to the IPC SC for Paralympic Status. Finally, on October 14-15, 1994, following another IWRF presentation at the IPC Sport Council Executive Committee (SCEC) meeting, the IPC SCEC officially granted Wheelchair Rugby Paralympic Sport status.

Team Canada at the 1993 Stoke Mandeville Games

Concurrently with the meetings with the IPC, Pawel was negotiating with the APOC hoping to gain a spot on the Paralympic Games program. On June 16-18, 1995, the 1st European Zone Championships took place in Gothenburg, Sweden, which coincided with the joint meeting of IPC SCEC and APOC representatives. Both groups had a first-hand chance to see Wheelchair Rugby in action and were extremely impressed and recognized that the sport belonged in the Paralympic Games. On September 30, 1995, at a joint meeting of IPC SCEC and APOC in Atlanta, the APOC finally approved Wheelchair Rugby as a demonstration sport for the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games. This achievement would not be possible without the IWRF Executive of that time: Sebastian De Francesco – Secretary, Barb Montemurro – Treasurer, Tony Lapolla – Technical Commission, Dr. Anne Marie Glenn – Classification Commission, Ed Markson – Competition Commission; and Zone Presidents: Kathy Nelligan – Americas, Brian Worrall – Europe, Philip Tracey – Oceania.

Another monumental event took place on October 22-29, 1995 in Nottwil, Switzerland: the 1st Wheelchair Rugby World Championships. The Swiss Organizing Committee, under the leadership of Andre Deville, Ursula Joss, and Franz Hupfer, delivered an extremely well-organized tournament. Eight teams competed and finished as follows: 1. USA, 2. Canada, 3. New Zealand, 4. Great Britain, 5. Sweden, 6. Australia, 7. Holland, 8. Switzerland. The American National Team finished undefeated, preluding the next seven years of the domination of the Wheelchair Rugby court. As President of the IWRF, Pawel had the privilege to donate and present the Wheelchair Rugby World Championship Cup. The cup itself has two elements associated with Switzerland: firstly, it was presented to the winning team for the first time in Switzerland; secondly, a part of the cup itself is from Switzerland. In order to protect the cup during his flight from Canada to Switzerland, Pawel had hoped to transport it in his carry-on luggage; however, the Swiss Airline ticket officer in Toronto would not allow this. Despite Pawel’s last-minute efforts at adding some protective packaging around the cup, the stem cracked during the flight. Luckily, Pawel and Ed Markson managed to find a trophy store in a small town not far from Nottwil, which had a stem to match the cup!

Team Canada faces off against the USA at the 1995 Toronto International.

Along with these great achievements at the top level of competition, Wheelchair Rugby continued to develop in many other areas, some of which include: the creation of an International Classification System with periodical upgrades; the creation of International Rules and a Referee Certification Program; the creation of a Wheelchair Rugby Bid Document; and the establishment of Sanctioned Events.

Continued international development of Wheelchair Rugby was taking place at the Annual World Wheelchair Games in Stoke Mandeville. International and local development was also taking place with Invitational Tournaments held across North America, as well as Switzerland, Holland, Germany, Great Britain, Sweden, Australia, and New Zealand, to mention a few.  In addition, further significant changes and developments in wheelchair design – such as lower sitting, body strapping, and bumper evolution) resulted in a safer and faster game.

Following the 1st World Championships in Switzerland, Pawel attended the IPC General Assembly, Congress, and SC meetings in Tokyo. Further to his earlier petition, the IPC SC adjusted the criteria for Paralympic Sport status by changing the regulations to differentiate between “team” and “single” sports.

At a meeting with the APOC on February 23-25, 1996, on behalf of the IWRF, Pawel signed the contract with the Games Organizing Committee for the inclusion of a Wheelchair Rugby tournament at the Atlanta Paralympics.

The Atlanta Paralympic Games took place from August 10-26, 1996. Three years following the establishment of IWRF, Wheelchair Rugby players, representing six countries, participated in the Opening Ceremonies of the Paralympic Games. Each team had only eight players due to restrictions on the number of athletes attending the Games. Each zone was represented by two teams: American Zone – Canada and USA, European Zone – Great Britain and Sweden, Oceania Zone – Australia and New Zealand. Similar to the World Championships, the USA dominated the tournament, and Canada took second place after a close match up with New Zealand.

On August 21, 1996, at the IPC Press Conference, Hans Lindstrom, Chairman of the IPC SC, announced that Wheelchair Rugby had received Full Medal Sport status for the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games.