GB’s wheelchair rugby champions relish spotlight after Paralympics award

The Guardian
The Guardian
Aaron Phipps helped Great Britain defeat USA in the wheelchair rugby final at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo.

The success of Great Britain’s wheelchair rugby team is helping to shift the perception of Paralympians away from being “super heroes” and towards being seen simply as elite athletes, according to one of the team’s stars.

After 1 million people watched Great Britain defeat the USA to win gold in Tokyo on Channel 4 this summer, the broadcaster is now exploring the possibility of showing the wheelchair rugby world championships in Denmark next year. As the team were named inaugural winners of the National Lottery’s Paralympian of the year award, Aaron Phipps celebrated what he called the “massive journey” his sport has been on.

The growth in public interest in the Paralympics has been driven by the personal stories of athletes who have often overcome personal hardship to perform on an international stage. Phipps says that while it is natural to want to learn about people’s disabilities, audiences are now willing to engage with para-sport on its own terms.

“I think it’s human nature to be curious, isn’t it, and I think to completely take away from the story is probably too far,” he said. “But you can tell someone your backstory in five minutes, park it and move on. Then you want people to buy into the sport and enjoy that aspect of it. I think it’s getting the credibility by the fact that a million people are tuning in just to watch the sport.”

Describing his sport as “like chess with violence”, Phipps argues that wheelchair rugby has the potential to cut through as a mainstream sport because of its high scoring format. “It’s a massive spectator sport because it’s very end to end and it’s a sport where in the last two minutes of the game there could be a fundamental shift and one team could smash another team,” he said. “It’s really exciting. Where else do you get to watch people in wheelchairs smash other people out of their wheelchairs?”
The GB men’s team celebrate with their gold medals in Tokyo. Photograph: imagecomms/ParalympicsGB/PA

Phipps’s irreverence is typical of the sport formerly known as Murderball. Following the success in Tokyo the Channel 4 comedy show The Last Leg also got behind it, endorsing a call for more coverage with the social media campaign #IWouldWatchWheelchairRugbyOnTV. A Channel 4 spokesperson confirmed they were looking into future broadcast options.

GB Wheelchair Rugby has been running taster sessions across the country since Tokyo and executives have been encouraged by the number of young wheelchair users keen to try out the sport. After losing all funding at the start of the last Paralympic cycle, there is confidence it will be impossible for the sport to be ignored in the future.

“We’re on a massive journey,” Phipps said. “It’s already gone from being a sport nobody knew a blinking thing about to the point where a million people are tuning in on a Sunday morning to watch it. Now if someone goes on the red button people will know it as the sport they saw at the Paralympics and go: ‘Shall we watch a bit?’ It would be great if the world championships were streamed, then you’ve got that continuity.”

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