Rolling Stone magazine described Murderball , winner of the 2005 Sundance Documentary Audience Award, as “outrageous fun”, but I’m not sure the quadriplegics playing this often manic and violent-minded sport would see it that way.
“We’re not going for a hug. We’re going for a f***ing gold medal!” – Such are the sentiments of these warriors who play wheelchair rugby.
Wheelchair rugby was developed in Canada in the mid ’70’s and found its way to the US and Australia in 1981. It became a Paralympic event in 2000.
Using a volleyball, it is played on a regulation basketball court with eight metre wide try lines. The only real similarity it has with rugby is the ‘tackle’ executed by slamming your reinforced steel wheelchair into that of an opponent.
Strategically, an effective tackle stops your opponent’s forward momentum and can cause a turn over. But it becomes obvious the tackle is performed for the sheer exhilaration of upending your opponent. There is little pity for the man lying on his side unable to right himself.
Players of murderball must have impaired movement in at least three limbs. Most of them are quadriplegics who – contrary to popular thought – have some form of arm or hand function, making it possible to play with varying degrees of skill.
Each player is given a disability rating from 0.5 to 3.5 – the lower the rating, the higher the disability. Each team is allowed a maximum of eight points on the court at one time.
The game precludes the participation of paraplegics who dominate disabled wheelchair events.
The film follows the powerful US team over two years as it competes at the 2002 World Championships and the 2004 Athens Paralympics. Its members are an enigma – disabled men who are also elite sportsmen. From a squad of five hundred players only twelve make it into the national team.
Significantly it also focuses on two ultra competitive and angry individuals who hate each other.
The first is Mark Zukan who was crippled after being thrown from the back of a ute into a canal where he hung to dear life from a branch for eleven hours before being discovered. The most intimidating of the team members, he has a muscular build, tattoos, a goatee and an intense stare.
“What, you don’t want to hit a kid in a chair. Go on, hit me. I’ll hit you back!” he asserts angrily.
His reviled antagonist is Joe Soares, an ageing former champion who, embittered by his axing from the team, has made it his life’s mission to defeat the US, as coach of Canada. Soares is a victim of childhood polio and a study in bitter obsession.
We are introduced to him as he hurls abuse towards a female member of the US coaching staff. His trophy-filled house is a shrine to his glorious playing days but those times are long gone.
Understandably the female manager of the American team enjoys telling us: “Joe was slowing down. He was getting old. So he was culled!”.
“If Joe was on the side of the road on fire I wouldn’t piss on him”, says Zukan.
During their anniversary dinner his wife toasts him, and he returns it with “To Team Canada hopefully. To the gold, baby. Golden rainbow.”
His sisters complain that he is addicted to the game. There’s a shot of his mad eyes and the veins popping out of his forehead during the pre-game shriek: “One, two ,three….CANADA!” Next frame he’s in hospital being operated on after suffering a heart attack.
As a Portuguese immigrant he praises the US for the opportunities he was given and so the personal vendetta against his old team doesn’t always sit well. After beating the US in the final of the World Championships his joy is clearly diluted by an ex teammate who asks: “How’s it feel to betray your country man?”
Breaking your neck changes your life forever. Athletic people especially struggle to cope with their sudden child-like dependency and tortuously long “rehabilitation”.
We are shown Keith, a recent victim of a motocross accident, at the Kessler Rehabilitation Centre where Christopher Reeve was taken after his accident. “When you go down to that gym you realise how much you’re broken down. You’re really at an infant’s level. That type of reality check you can’t explain to anybody”.
Hogsett, whose spinal cord was damaged in a fist fight says: “What is really hard is the first two years…trying to get independent…then you either make it or you don’t.”
It’s also difficult for alpha males in wheelchairs. Being in a seated position they are always at the height of a child. After losing they roll out to be consoled by their girlfriends and family members bending down. Zukan’s girlfriend admits that many women are attracted to them by curiosity and a mothering instinct rather than by their sporting prowess.
The least aggressive member of the team lost his legs and hands to a rare form of childhood meningitis.
It would be a mistake to assume that the accidents are totally responsible for their characters. One of Zukan’s friends relates: “Mark was very much an asshole before so any attempt to point to the wheelchair or accident as the cause of his grumpiness would be an utter hoax.”.
Admittedly the film is light on when it comes to sporting footage but we do get to see the intense rivalry between the Americans and Canadians. All their games are decided at the death. During one there is a second to go when a US player drops an ‘easy’ pass on the try line giving Canada the World Championship. title. He’s inconsolable, yanking his leaden legs about.
“Don’t be sad” says a caring official, unaware that these are not the Goodwill Games.
The Australian team is seen fleetingly, as are the New Zealanders doing the haka. New Zealand pulled off a huge upset by beating Canada in the final in Athens. Australia has been prominent for many years, losing to the US in the final of the 2008 Paralympics and 2010 World Championships.
In 2009 a book on the Australian team, also entitled Murderball, was released. It documents the sometimes bitter rivalry with the US but the world’s best player, Australian Ryley Batt, highlights how alike the players of all nationalities are: “I’ve got no legs. Who cares? We’re all in wheelchairs. So what?”