The impact of inclusive sports can’t be underestimated. But how does a new sport start, develop and create impact? Wheelchair basketball teaches valuable lessons.

For so many, sports are deeply embedded into their national or regional identity. From cricket in India to football in the UK, it’s difficult to imagine a time before they existed.

But sport is so much more than fitness and entertainment. It can lead to opportunity, changes in social attitudes and much more.

For lower- and middle-income countries, the impact of inclusive sports can’t be underestimated. But how does a new sport start, develop and create impact? Let’s look at wheelchair basketball as an example.

Why wheelchair basketball?

Wheelchair basketball is one of the hottest ticket events at the Paralympics. The sport made its debut at the launch of the modern Games in Rome in 1960. But its roots stretch back further to the USA in the late 1940s, where participants played in their everyday wheelchairs with adaptions to lighten and increase manoeuvrability.

A man in a green t-shirt sits in a wheelchair and reaches up to catch a basketball with his left hand. Another man in a yellow vest sitting in a wheelchair approaches him from behind.

ICRC Afghanistan outdoor court before the development of indoor facilities.

By 1973 the International Stoke Mandeville Games Federation (ISMGF), then governing body for wheelchair sports, created a sub section for basketball. The International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF) was born. They created different zones and initiatives to develop the sport further, allowing membership and opportunities to play to expand around the globe.

Thanks to some important organisations, the sport was introduced to people living in hard-to-reach and remote locations. Without these not-for-profit organisations, hundreds of wheelchair basketball players would never be able to access the opportunities of sport.

The impact of sport for development: ICRC

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delivers rehabilitation and health services to regions impacted by conflict. Seeing the value of sport as a tool in rehabilitation, they started to develop sports opportunities over a decade ago. This enabled participants to gain fitness and strength, but to become part of a team, take on leadership and coaching roles, and to build confidence.

But their work had a wider impact beyond the participants: in many areas, they were challenging society’s perception of human capability, disrupting stereotypes of what an athlete looks like, as well as delivering some exciting sport to watch and play.

While the ICRC were using sports for development, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) identified that a lack of good quality, low-cost, entry-level equipment created enormous barriers to the expansion of sport and the Paralympic movement. They wanted to increase access to sport for people around the world, in all countries. So, they approached Motivation to create sports wheelchairs for grassroots development.

The ICRC, sports federations and other groups quickly utilised these sports wheelchairs to develop and expand their opportunities for sport and increase participation. Even more people were able to benefit from sports programmes.

Since the ICRC signed a formal partnership agreement with the IWBF in 2016, we’ve seen an increase in the number of federations joining the wheelchair basketball family and gaining full IWBF affiliation: India, Ethiopia, Palestine, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Rwanda… The list goes on.

In March 2021, Ethiopia and Afghanistan were both able to hold national wheelchair basketball competitions for the first time. In , both countries, the development of wheelchair basketball development was supported by the ICRC .

Republic of Rwanda one of the newest affiliated federations. Image from IWBF Rwanda Instagram.

How does wheelchair basketball have an impact?

The ICRC plan to increase their use of sport into 27 countries and their long-term goal is big: to break down the stigma associated with physical disability and create structures in societies that allow people with disabilities to reach their full potential.

"Let's make sure people with disabilities are not held back by misconceptions of what they are capable of," Jess Markt, the ICRC's disabilities, sport and inclusion advisor speaking in 2019.

"Let's promote pathways to employment and education, and let's counter the assumption that someone who had childhood polio or was hit by a landmine cannot function as a parent or productive employee. They can."

In 2017, ICRC announced a partnership with the Adecco Group Foundation. Adecco have a long association with the IPC, helping elite athletes to prepare for life beyond sports, so were well placed to team up. Their work with the ICRC drives social inclusion and the reintegration of people with a disability into the labour market in areas affected by armed conflict.

The skills delivered through access to sport are building pathways to employment. A massive impact that goes beyond feeling fit and shooting hoops.

So, what can be learnt from this about developing a new sport, or a new code of sport? What makes the difference?

  • Federations and sports bodies partnering with organisations to reach potential players
  • Collaboration between great partners
  • Access to the right equipment
  • Dedicated lovers of sport
  • Big ambitions

Nabil from Syria team. Image from Jess Markt's blog.

Some interesting reading

Wheelchair basketball in Rwanda

Jess Markt's blog on ICRC sport development programmes

The story of Paralympic sport on the National Paralympic Heritage Trust website

To learn more about our sports wheelchairs, get in touch!