Mississauga hosted wheelchair rugby and goalball. I saw goalball at the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta, and it is a unique and thrilling sport, played by blind athletes. Wheelchair rugby is irresistible, as millions have discovered through the excellent documentary "Murderball".
I couldn't get to goalball, but I snagged good seats to the wheelchair rugby finals, which eventually sold out. I went with a friend who had never seen - or even thought about - wheelchair sports before. When we got to the arena, we learned that the gold medal game was between the US and Canada, the same teams that face off in Murderball.
Bronze medal game: Colombia vs. Brazil
In the bronze medal game, Colombia played Brazil. The game started with dull, lacklustre play, not at all what we expected. It looked more like a trial game in a rehab centre than elite international play. But gradually, speed and strategy picked up.
One Colombian player began to dominate the court, not with size or strength, but with agility and finesse. (I think it was Jhon Orozco Nunez, wearing number 4, but I'm not positive.) He used his torso to pivot and swivel and wind his way through openings. The crowd noticed him and began to cheer his every move, and his game came on stronger and faster. By the last quarter, the stands were packed, and every time #4 touched the ball, the crowd went wild. (Also, Brazil had been cleaning up in the medal count, so many people were cheering against them, for the underdog.)
|Brazil ramming crowd favourite #4|
Gold medal game: USA vs. Canada
By the time the gold medal game started, the stands were completely packed, a sea of Canada red with the occasional Stars and Stripes visible here and there. The North American players were noticeably bigger and more athletic looking than the South American players. My friend and I were both struck by the difference, leading us to speculate about the difference in healthcare, rehab opportunities, even nutrition and education. Most wheelchair athletes must travel in order to practice and play in tournaments. Depending on where they live, their opportunities to actually play their sport may be very limited.
The game was wild. The US took an early lead, with Canada playing catch-up right from the start, down four or six points. The American team was so strong, we felt that if Canada fell further behind, it was cooked.
|Canadian Zak Madell|
|Madell with the ball, as usual|
I ducked out before the medal ceremony, as it was already late and I was working the following morning, which gave me an out from the national anthem issue. (It looks very disrespectful when I sit for the Star Spangled Banner, then stand for O Canada.)
The gold medal wheelchair rugby game was the highest level of play I've ever seen in a wheelchair game. I took a ton of pictures, which are not very good - partly because I was not on the sidelines with a huge lens like the professionals, and partly from my inexperience with sports photography. But if you're interested, they are here.