Practiced inclusion: wheelchair basketball and sitting volleyball are prime examples


Sports are exciting. Sports unite. This is especially true for team sports. When people with disabilities and able-bodied persons play sports together, we can rightly call it practiced inclusion. Great examples of this are wheelchair basketball and sitting volleyball. But what does practiced inclusion in sports really mean? And what about the representative role of the Paralympic Games?

Photo: wheelchair basketball star Annika Zeyen; Copyright: Annika Zeyen; and the mixed German and Netherlands sitting volleyball team; Copyright: Michael Overhage

Wheelchair basketball star Annika Zeyen and the mixed German and Netherlands sitting volleyball team; © Annika Zeyen/Michael Overhage

Practiced inclusion in sports is still a one-sided arrangement. We primarily find it in disability sports. Able-bodies persons or people with a so-called minimal disability are able to participate without any issues. This is often the case in team sports. Even though there are many inclusive sports projects at the regional level, there is hardly any comprehensive implementation in amateur sports. That’s why sports like wheelchair basketball and sitting volleyball are prime examples. However, cutbacks in Paralympic sports represent a general downward trend in competitive disabled sports – whether it’s in terms of money or social prestige. There is a growing concern that amateur sports will soon also be seriously affected by this if government funding is discontinued.
Photo: Annika Zeyen; Copyright: Annika Zeyen

Annika Zeyen has broken records as a player; © Annika Zeyen

Action packed wheelchair basketball – just like an amusement park

Annika Zeyen has been a paraplegic since her fourteenth birthday. She has always been athletic, so she didn’t want a riding accident to take this away from her. That’s why the first time she came in contact with wheelchair basketball happened during her rehabilitation phase.

From then on, her wheelchair basketball career took off. Today she has broken records as a player and has already participated in over 300 international matches. She currently plays for the BG Baskets Hamburg team. Among her biggest successes is winning the gold medal at the 2012 Summer Paralympics, which she also owes to her team of course. "What I like about wheelchair basketball is that it is a team sport. You never get bored because it is such a dynamic sport." If you ever saw wheelchair basketball, you know how action packed this sport is. "Many spectators say that wheelchair basketball is often far more exciting than conventional basketball. When the wheelchairs crash into each other, spectators compare them to bumper cars."

This is perhaps the reason why able-bodied people or those who experience minor physical limitations are also interested in this sport. At the national level, even able-bodied athletes can participate in leagues. At the international level, on the other hand, you need to exhibit a minimal disability. Zeyen explains, "A minimal disability is a severe knee injury for example. Our national team includes many female players who used to play conventional basketball and then experienced a severe injury to the knee and were no longer able to play conventional basketball. For them, the wheelchair is a piece of sports equipment; they walk in everyday life."

Photo: Annika Zeyen during a national play; Copyright: Annika Zeyen

Annika Zeyen during a national play; © Annika Zeyen

Classification system ensures equal competition opportunities

A sophisticated classification system ensures a level playing field and equal competition opportunities in wheelchair basketball. Even though able-bodied players are also seated in a wheelchair, they have far more stability in the upper part of their bodies compared to athletes who suffer from severe paraplegia. This is why every player is classified beforehand. The classification ranges from 4.5 points for players without a functional disability to 1.0 points for players with more severe impairments. Overall, the five players on the court must not exceed 14.5 points. Zeyen adds, that "you cannot assemble a team where all players have no or only a minimal disability. The classification system ensures that the impairment severity is equalized."
Photo: Sitting volleyball trainer Michael Overhage; Copyright: Michael Overhage

Sitting volleyball trainer Michael Overhage; © Michael Overhage

Sitting volleyball: a very different game system

Things are not quite as complicated in sitting volleyball. Michael Overhage is the sitting volleyball head coach of the TSV Bayer 04 Leverkusen team and the head coach of the German national team at the Olympic training center in Rheinland but is not disabled himself. He played in Iceland’s Premier League and trained its national team. After his return to Germany, the TSV approached him and offered him the head coach position in sitting volleyball. "To be honest, I had never considered sitting volleyball before. But everybody assured me it wouldn’t be as crazy or different from standing volleyball – but that was a lie!", Overhage says and laughs. Although the technical basis in sitting volleyball is the same as in standing volleyball, Overhage had to completely rework the game system. "I had to consider questions like, where does this person have his leg. Where is this person’s power output? In what direction is this person able to move or not?"

"Disabled" and "minimally disabled"

Able-bodied people are also allowed to participate in sitting volleyball. Overhage estimates that the current percentage at the national level is approximately 10 percent. At the TSV, there are three players in the first team including the head coach and assistant coach who frequently play, too and two more able-bodied players in the second team.

"Having said that, only athletes that have been classified based on the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) code are allowed to play in the national team. We don’t have a point system like the one used in wheelchair basketball but divide athletes into two categories: 'disabled' and 'minimally disabled'. Only one minimally disabled player is allowed on the field and two in the squad. A minimal disability could also be temporarily extended. A cruciate ligament injury of the knee, for instance, would qualify. On a national level, this is determined by the respective governing body. In Germany, two able-bodied players may sit on the field during official competitions, for instance during the German National Championships. In the Netherlands, where sitting volleyball originated, six able-bodied players are allowed to sit on the field."
Photo: Michael Overhage is motivating his team during a competition; Copyright: Michael Overhage

Michael Overhage is motivating his team during a competition; © Michael Overhage

Money talks, especially in professional sports

Seven of the twelve players competing in the Paralympic Games are players of the TSV. Yet Overhage won’t fly to Rio. "The spots are limited. Each year, there are more and more cutbacks. Paralympic sitting volleyball has been cut from originally twelve teams per gender to eight. That’s why it is so difficult to qualify."

Overhage sees one reason for this in the public service broadcasters’ constitutional commitment to provide information as widely and completely as possible. "German public broadcasting stations have not truly fulfilled their commitment for many years. A sports show is no longer a sports show but a ‘football show’. This is very sad but tolerated and government-funded. You just need to take a look at how much money is spent on rights to broadcast football."

What is the point of insisting on more media attention for Paralympic sports when it is ultimately just dictated by public service broadcasters? And how will Paralympic sports continue to evolve if cutbacks dominate the event? Will practiced inclusion soon no longer be a topic if savings measures will also affect amateur sports before too long?

The short answer is yes! Sports like sailing which will no longer be a Paralympic discipline starting in 2017, unsurprisingly no longer fall under the category of "amateur sports". The predominantly club organized, competitive sports practice is subsequently decimated, funding canceled, trainers dismissed and ultimately there will also be no more new talent waiting in the wings. This, in turn, means that the "practiced inclusion" motto is no longer a topic and won’t be in the future.

Foto: Melanie Günther; Copyright: B. Frommann

© B. Fromman

Melanie Günther
(translated by Elena O'Meara)

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