#46: Wheelchair Rugby Shows it's Best in Atlanta

Written by Pawel Zbieranowski

The sport of Wheelchair Rugby made it's debut at the Paralympic Games as one of two Demonstration Sports. (Sailing being the other newcomer.)

The tournament was attended by the top 6 teams of last year's World Championships held in Switzerland: 1. USA, 2. Canada, 3. New Zealand, 4. Great Britain, 5. Sweden, 6. Australia.

The teams, limited to only 8 players (Wheelchair Rugby regulations permit 12 players per team), provided many spectators, Games' Organizers, volunteers and media with a top quality performance. Through this physical and sometimes rough and tumble action, the players demonstrated that quadriplegic athletes and the sport of Wheelchair Rugby definitely belong to the Paralympic family.

The Round Robin tournament featured many “Firsts” of Wheelchair Rugby at the Paralympics

  • The first Wheelchair Rugby Paralympic goal was scored by Jimmy Ottosson #6 of Sweden in the game against the USA
  • The first tie and overtime was recorded in the game between Great Britain 38 and Sweden 38, with the British victorious in overtime 41-40
  • The first come back from a deficit of as many as 6 goals in the last quarter, with the winning point scored with just 2.2 seconds left on the clock, Great Britain 34 - Australia 33
  • The first Wheelchair Rugby Paralympic “HAKA” demonstrated by New Zealand and performed prior to each of their games – it brought a special flavour to the tournament
  • The first unbeaten streak by the World Champions – Team USA

The final standing after the Round Robin was: 1. USA, 2. New Zealand, 3. Canada, 4. Great Britain, 5. Sweden, 6. Australia

Canada vs Great Britain at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games
Canada vs Great Britain at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games

In the first of the semi-finals USA – 38, showed its strength by overpowering Great Britian – 25. The other semi-final featured New Zealand and Canada. The Islanders from “Down Under” had defeated Canada during the Round Robin by 3 points. The inventors of Wheelchair Rugby – Team Canada, had to show their absolute best in order to overcome the rising power from Oceania Zone. The final score was Canada 39 – New Zealand 38.

In the Bronze Medal Game the New Zealanders proved that they deserved to be on the podium. After a quick recovery from their semi-final loss, the Kiwis dominated the Islanders from Europe by beating Great Britain by a score of 46-34.

The Final Game featured the longtime rivals USA and Canada. Both teams represented a different style of play. USA, with a much longer bench, preferred a team approach by using two lines, each featuring star players such as Cliff Chunn, Joe Soares, David Gould and Brad Updegrove, to mention just a few. Canada relied more on the individual performance of its best players and mainly on Garrett Hickling. Both teams started on an equal foot, or “wheel” in this case, with USA ahead of Canada, 10-9, after the first quarter. However, at half-time, the Stars and Stripes took a lead of 18-15, after which they never had to look back. Controlling the flow of the game, they coasted to a 37-30 victory and the first Paralympic Wheelchair Rugby Gold Medal.

The final standing of the tournament was identical to the one from the World Championships: 1. USA, 2. Canada, 3. New Zealand, 4. Great Britain, 5. Sweden, 6. Australia.

The tournament was a great success with the medal round being completely sold out.

At the next Paralympic Games in Sydney 2000, Wheelchair Rugby would obtain Medal Sport Status.