Gladiators on wheels win new rugby fans
Peter Simpson in Beijing
It's fast, furious and physical, and more interesting than bowling, darts or pool.
That was the verdict yesterday of the victorious United States wheelchair rugby team that began its defence of its Paralympics title with a 65-30 thrashing of China.
More akin to bumper cars with chariot-like wheels and a hint of gladiatorial combativeness, wheelchair rugby fever infected Beijing Science and Technology University.
And its instant popularity added to growing calls to make it a professional discipline and mainstream global television sport.
'We want more people to see it,' said top US scorer Mark Zupan, 33, who suffered his disability 15 years ago in a car accident and has starred in a film about the sport.
'They put on bowling, darts and pool. This is arguably more exciting. Just because we're in wheelchairs doesn't mean we cannot play an awesome sport that can be watched on TV.'
Wheelchair rugby is about as far removed from its eponymous discipline as possible. It is played on a basketball-style court. Balls are passed forward and bounced. It acquired the rugby name because 'murderball' was deemed unsuitable.
All players are quadriplegic, as the rules require that they must have a disability that affects all or a portion of both the upper and lower extremities. The sport originated in the US, where it is referred to as quad rugby. A match consists of eight-minute quarters, and players use ramming and blocking tactics to carry a round ball into goals via a series of passes.
It has a growing following in 30 nations and is among the most spectator-friendly sports of the Paralympics, given its simple rules and fast action.
New Zealand, Canada, Britain, Australia and Japan are favourites for a medal.
The 2008 Paralympics could boost interest in the sport because China has 83 million disabled people.
Although outclassed by the US, the Chinese team showed a tenacity belying the fact they have trained for only a year. If they continue, they could cause a few upsets in the remaining four days of competition.
'We need to calm down,' said team member Jun Chen. 'We were a little too hasty today. We need to study the stronger teams.'
Even so, the fledgling Chinese team - cheered on by about 1,000 enthusiastic home fans - gained the respect of the US team, which is seeking a third straight gold medal.
'We played an incredible opponent today,' US coach James Gumbert said. 'You can see how much China has progressed. We had a lot of fans here today, and it was very impressive. We could hardly communicate as the noise level was so high.'
US player Nick Springer said the Chinese side proved tough.
'They've improved a great deal since we last played them three months ago. Will they get a medal? We'll have to wait and see.'