In a parallel universe, disability athletes around the world would currently be preparing to make their bow at the Paralympic Games.
Athletes who, for the past four years of qualification, training and sacrifice, had geared themselves up for a tilt at a gold medal in Tokyo.
But while some have had to put their dreams on ice, other have had theirs shattered completely.
Annabelle Lindsay is one of two Australian Gliders who recently had their hopes of competing dashed by a change in the classification rules for wheelchair athletes set to compete at the Games, being told they were now ineligible just weeks before the proposed start of the Games, had they taken place this year.
It’s the same change that saw British star George Bates claim he would need to amputate his leg in order to compete, after his complex regional pain syndrome was deemed an ineligible disability.
For Lindsay, the decision means losing the chance to lead the team that she helped qualify in Tokyo. And losing her love of the sport.
Inclusive no more
Wheelchair basketball has long been a pioneer for ensuring sport is available to all, allowing for players of mixed levels of disabilities — and even those without a disability at a domestic level in Australia — to compete alongside one another.
The International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF), said in a statement that its classification philosophy, “has always been to make the sport as inclusive as possible and give all those with eligible impairments and disabilities a chance to play the game”.
In wheelchair basketball, competitors are given a score — 1.0 for athletes with the highest level of impairment through to 4.5, for those like Lindsay, who have low levels of impairment — with teams only permitted a maximum number of 14 points-worth of player on the court at any one time.
That means a team can be filled with athletes who have a mid-range score, or have one athlete with a low level of impairment play with athletes with a high level of impairment.
“It’s so that everyone can play,” the 22-year-old Lindsay said.
However, that all changed when the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) ruled that some athletes with lower levels of impairments would be excluded from competing at the Paralympic Games.
The IPC Code and that used by the IWBF does not align. IPC president Andrew Parsons saying in January that despite wheelchair basketball being “one of the most popular sports at the Paralympic Games … this does not mean that the IWBF is above the rules”.
“Athlete classification is integral to all Paralympic sport and the failure of any sport to comply is of critical concern to us because it could threaten the integrity of competition,” Parsons said.
The sport was ordered to make a change or risk being kicked out of the Paralympics — an outcome almost unthinkable for a sport that is not only one of the most popular events at the Games, but a founding member at the first official Games in Rome in 1960.
“Originally the word was that this was just a power play, politics,” Lindsay said.
“But as the months went on, we realised what a big deal it was and that athletes would lose their careers because of this.”
‘Once you are in the chair, we are literally all at the same level’
Lindsay was a promising able-bodied basketball player who played at a semi-professional level and had been awarded a scholarship at Minot State University in North Dakota before suffering a career-ending knee injury.
Despite surgery, that injury has severely impaired Lindsay throughout her life, with her knee dislocating with the smallest provocation, barring her from participating in the vast majority of able-bodied sports.
“People might see me walking and they’ll say, ‘oh, there’s nothing wrong with her’ but they don’t see my knee dislocating whenever I try to bend down, even the smallest amount.
“I can’t walk up stairs. I can’t go up ramps, I physically have no way to run or jump. My knee dislocates at any time.
Lindsay was given the chance to continue playing her sport through wheelchair basketball and excelled.
“What’s really cool about wheelchair basketball is once you are in the chair, we are literally all at the same level,” Lindsay explains.
“It doesn’t matter if I can walk because I can’t use my legs. I’m sitting down. The system in wheelchair basketball is set up so that it is inclusive.”
‘Being disabled is not a one-size-fits-all thing’
One of the four Paralympic Values — alongside Courage, Determination and Inspiration — is Equality.
Equality: Through sport, Para athletes celebrate diversity and show that difference is a strength. As pioneers for inclusion, they challenge stereotypes, transform attitudes and break down social barriers and discrimination towards persons with disabilities.
However, the IPC’s ruling appears to show that being pioneers for inclusion only goes so far.
This is a topic that will doubtless cause division and controversy.
Is there a difference, for example, between people in wheelchairs playing basketball and people playing basketball in wheelchairs?
Lindsay says there is not, and that disability is not an overarching label.
However, the question of what it means to be a disabled athlete has now been raised, and whether you have to be the right kind of disabled.
“Disabilities come in all shapes and sizes,” Lindsay said.
“Just because you don’t always use a wheelchair that doesn’t mean you don’t have a disability.
“Being disabled is not a one-size-fits-all thing.”
‘How can we exclude people like that?’
Lindsay said the ruling has excluded her from being able to participate in sport.
“There is nothing I can do. If I lift weights, it would have to be sitting down. I can’t even go for long walks. I can only play adaptive sports — and not even all adaptive sports. Rowing would be too painful, my knee would just dislocate.
“It would have to be wheelchair-specific sports. But now they’ve even said, ‘sorry, you’re not disabled enough to play in the Paralympics’ but I’m definitely not able-enough to play able-bodied sports, so what do they expect me to do?
“Being able to play sport should just be a fundamental right that people have.
“It has such enormous physical and mental health benefits, and now there’s a huge amount of people that can’t get that because we don’t fit in a distinct category.”
Lindsay said this was not just a problem that has emerged in wheelchair basketball, with athletes across the Paralympic sporting spectrum being impacted.
“I think what’s made me so passionate about it was, obviously this sucks for me, but I would have had over 50, 60 messages from parents and kids who are saying ‘hey, what’s your disability, it’s just I’ve been told that I’m not disabled enough to play wheelchair tennis’, or ‘I’m worried that I’m not going to be able to go to the Paralympics for this,’ or ‘I’ve been told that even though I use a wheelchair full time, I can’t compete in wheelchair track’.
“Someone sent me a message that their brother was too disabled for one category but not disabled enough for another so they couldn’t compete — they didn’t even fit in the system.
“Kids with a disability have to go through a lot as it is.”
Opened up a can of worms
Basketball Australia has said both Lindsay and her teammate Teisha Shadwell will both be permitted to continue playing in the domestic competition, but will not take the court in Tokyo — if the delayed Paralympics happen at scheduled.
Lindsay, one of the team’s top scorers in qualification, said that fact has its own issues from a sporting integrity point of view.
“I started and scored in every single game that qualified us for the Paralympics,” Lindsay said.
“What does this mean for the teams that didn’t qualify for the Paralympics because they played against teams that had ineligible athletes? Do they get another opportunity to qualify against the teams with only eligible athletes?”
The ruling does not just have sporting implications though. It means that Lindsay will not be able to take up her latest scholarship with the University of Texas at Arlington — the first ever awarded to an overseas wheelchair basketball player — beyond a one-year grace period.
The other issue is funding. By being excluded from competing at Paralympic level, Lindsay worries some ineligible people will no longer be able to apply for funding to continue playing their sport.
With basketball-specific chairs coming in at $4,000, that’s an expensive call for those families.
“It’s really upsetting that so many people — not just me — are losing these opportunities to compete because of this decision.
Sporting bodies have already proven themselves to be woefully inept at dealing with athletes that do not fit neatly into established categories, as the ongoing discussion over the eligibility of Caster Semenya has shown.
Throw into the mix the myriad of symptoms facing people with disabilities and categorising them is bound to cause confusion, at best.
Despite having the support of the wheelchair basketball community as a whole, being excluded has severely dented Lindsay’s love for the sport.
“What I love most about, what I used to love most about wheelchair basketball was how inclusive it was,” Lindsay said. “I think that made it the best sport in the world.
“And that’s been ruined now.”