Is Ryley Batt Too Good At Wheelchair Rugby?
Of the 20 sports that make up the Paralympic Games, without doubt wheelchair rugby features more crashes, crunches, bruises and bumps than any other. But there’s one player on the international scene right now who seems to be able to crash, crunch, bruise and bump harder than anyone else – Australia’s Ryley Batt.
In Ryley’s own words, he is “the main man out there.” The 22-year-old, who was born without legs and only two fingers on each hand, is already a veteran of both the Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games. His unparalleled speed and manoeuvrability on court makes him arguably the most feared player in the sport, and without doubt the one to watch out for at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
But opinion is divided within the wheelchair rugby world as to whether Ryley’s inclusion in the sport signals its the death knell.
“In terms of where I sit in the debate, I think he is probably too good to play wheelchair rugby, but like everyone else I’d rather wait to see how he performs at London 2012 before fully forming an opinion,” says former GB wheelchair rugby squad member Justin Frishberg. Also a veteran of Athens and Beijing, Justin retired from international competition last year and will be commentating on Channel 4’s coverage of the London International Invitational Wheelchair Rugby Tournament on the 18th – 19th April.
“Wheelchair rugby was designed to be inclusive. It was invented in spinal cord injury rehab units by a bunch of people who couldn’t play wheelchair basketball,” continues Justin. “They were too disabled – they didn’t have the function in their limbs and their trunk (torso). So they invented wheelchair rugby, and it was inclusive enough to give people who have little or no triceps, stuff like that, a real role in sport.
“As it has grown to include other people – not just those with spinal injuries, but other disabilities too – the classification system has always attempted to involve them, but it’s just a question of whether that has been done in the right way,” he adds.
In wheelchair rugby, each player is classified with a points rating from 0.5 to 3.5 according to their physical ability, with 0.5 representing the least able and 3.5 the most able. Teams are only allowed four players with a maximum combined total of 8.0 points on court at any one time. A completely able-bodied player would be rated at 5.0 – but international rules dictate that any player rated 4.0 or above is ineligible at competition level.
“Obviously he’s expensive for the Australian team, but it takes more than 3.5 points to nail him down. Sometimes it takes three players,” continues Justin, himself a 2.0 player.
“So how able-bodied is too able bodied? I think people will look at Ryley and think ‘Well, he doesn’t have any hands or legs, so how can he possibly be too able-bodied?’ but then he doesn’t have impaired movement in his trunk, so he can twist his chair without putting his hands on the wheels, leaving them free to reach out and grab the ball. He can tip his chair up and lean forward in it to gain extra height. He can hit that much harder. He starts quicker. He turns better. And he’s got so many extra bodily functions that spinal cord injured players don’t have – sweat function, lung function, blood pressure and so on. These are hard things to measure, and I’m not saying that people with these disabilities shouldn’t be in the game, but these are the advantages that they have. Seeing him on court and what he can do with his limitations, it’s really, really powerful.”
Perhaps surprisingly then, Ryley wasn’t always considered the most able. When he first burst on to the wheelchair rugby scene in 2002 at the age of 15 as the youngest player ever to cap for Australia, he was initially classified as a mid-ability 2.5 pointer.
“He was reclassified at Athens in 2004 as a 3.5, which slightly ruined the plans of the Australia coach, I seem to remember,” says Justin.
“No one in wheelchair rugby has ever said that people with different disabilities shouldn’t be in the sport, but that illustrates how we’ve never really known how to classify them.
“And by allowing less and less disabled people in, the danger is that the classification process will become inflated to the extent it will start to exclude players who are at the bottom of the scale. As an experienced rugby player I probably have a different view about that to someone who is watching the game for the first time. But come London 2012, if Ryley is just dominating games on his own – if the Australian team makes it in to the final without his team mates having an important role – which I can see happening – then it takes away from the team element of the sport which is so important to us.”
Wheelchair rugby is a sport that is struggling to cope with its own increasingly high standards. As its popularity has grown since its inception in 1977, so too has the quality of athletes that compete in it. And Australia is by no means the only country trying to get that competitive edge by using players without spinal injuries.
“It’s a bit unfair focussing on Ryley in particular,” mulls Justin. “He’s a great guy. Whatever controversy there is, it’s certainly not around him as a person. It’s about whether our whole system is right. But at the moment, this is our system and this is why he’s competing in the Games. Good luck to him in 2012. He will be immense and exciting to watch, but I wouldn’t want to play against him.
At Beijing in 2008, Australia were forced to settle for second best. In a subsequent interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Ryley was honest about the impact of his own physical fitness on his team’s result, saying: “I don’t think I trained as hard as I could have and that’s a regret I have in life. In the final we were in it with a quarter-and-a-half to go when fatigue kicked in and that’s just a lack of training. We lost that game and got silver. At the time I was really happy with the silver, but I look back now and think that was an opportunity lost – all I had to do was train for the three years leading into it and I would have been fit and we could have got the gold.”
“This is the fittest he has ever been. This is the first time he’s been a proper athlete. The sport has had big players and proper athletes before, without a doubt, but this is the first time Ryley has really been in shape and ready to do some damage. I think it could be a bit of a revelation for people.”
And as with any sport, it’s always those stand out competitors who come to define it in the public’s mindset. Wheelchair rugby’s crashes, crunches, bruises and bumps are expected to be one of the biggest crowd draws at London 2012.
Will those huge crowds worry about whether Ryley Batt is too good at wheelchair rugby?
Do you think Ryley Batt is too good at wheelchair rugby? Let us know by leaving a comment!