Sporting Life

Wheels collide in a clash of courage and panache

When double amputees or paraplegics or people with polio fasten themselves to an aluminium frame, which rests on two slim wheels, our presumption is that they will now live a "restricted" life. But athletes in wheelchairs, across the world and here, are spiritedly deciding how far they can stretch the definition of that word.

Vincent Delepeleire, who lost the use of his legs, paraglided across the Alps in a wheelchair. Thomas Geierspichler, with no lower limb function, finished a marathon in a wheelchair in 1:40:7. Bernard Goosen, who has cerebral palsy, modified his wheelchair and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.

Disabled does not necessarily mean less able and wheelchair basketball at these Games has provided racing, skidding, pirouetting proof of it.

Much is left behind here on the court. Sweat, of course, sometimes skin, occasionally wheels.

On Sunday evening, Singapore captain Choo Poh Choon pulled back a tape that wrapped his palm to show off an impressive blister. Last evening a player's wheel came off and he leaned down, picked it up and hammered it back in. Let's play.

What you might wish for from sport may well be found here. It has toughness, for players will sink a basket - and scoring while sitting, with the basket at regulation height is an art - then peel down the court, brake, turn, block each other, titanium colliding with aluminium with a fierceness that is not always polite. Occasionally, as when Laos played the Philippines last evening, wheelchair rugby came to mind.

Players fell, chairs got dented, fouls were collected. Laos made 13, the Philippines 30. The latter's captain, the charming Juanito Cerezo Mingarine, who works in a wheelchair factory, had an excellent explanation. "Our wheelchairs are metal so they are heavier," he said, pointing to his rusting, taped, scraped chair from 2000. "We don't have the money. But the others have titanium or aluminium. So the Laos guys are faster, so we have to foul."

Much is left behind here on the court. Sweat, of course, sometimes skin, occasionally wheels. On Sunday evening, Singapore captain Choo Poh Choon pulled back a tape that wrapped his palm to show off an impressive blister. Yesterday evening a player's wheel came off and he leaned down, picked it up and hammered it back in. Let's play.

This is sport, isn't it, hard and unrelenting and still with some room for courtesy. Yesterday, when a Myanmar or Singapore player fell, occasionally a gang of rivals would surround him, grip the chair, hoist him back upright. Hands were then slapped in thanks before they accelerated back into the contest.

At pace comes skill. On Sunday, a Thai - apparently many play in professional leagues - passed the ball around his chair while another, speeding down one side, flicked a pass from behind his chair. The ball was flung across the court and grabbed one-handed. Magic Johnson would have grinned. Nonchalance was in the air.

Fast breaks were fun and the tactics fascinating. When they marked each other, man to man, two rivals sliding, braking, turning, pausing, all of it in harmony, it resembled the wheelchair dancers you can find on YouTube.

Music blared, the crowd played air guitar at half-time and the coolest man in the place, at least outwardly, was Singapore's Choo. Erect, unhurried, 34, he reminded one of a football midfielder of casual control. Against Myanmar last night he rolled his wheel, then bounced the ball - at a 45-degree angle to his chair, he explained - and then just for fun flicked a no-look pass.

His part-time and older team - average age 54, he says - has shown spirit but succumbed 19-51 to Thailand on Sunday and 17-51 to Myanmar last night.

Yet defeat did not stop the crowds from arriving in such force on two consecutive nights that Choo was "surprised"; it did not stop the public from greeting the first basket last night, with Singapore trailing 0-11, as if it was the winning one; it did not stop a strong section of the fans from staying till the end and chanting and hollering even when the game was long lost.

"Once-in-a-lifetime experience," said Choo later and it sounded like classic understatement. His team want to win, of course, but they have possibly also understood this: Sometimes you can lose and still have the time of your life.


Correction note: An earlier version of this article stated that Singapore lost 19-58 to Thailand. The score was actually 19-51. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 08, 2015, with the headline 'Wheels collide in a clash of courage and panache'. Print Edition | Subscribe