In early July, a month and a half before the Paralympics, Jannik Blair was having wheelchair problems. A seasoned member of the Rollers, the Australian men’s wheelchair basketball team, Blair had too many chairs. “It’s hard enough to travel with one chair, let alone two, let alone three,” he says.
Blair is one of three Rollers trialling a new customised carbon fibre wheelchair seat. His logistical headaches came about as he relocated back to Australia from Spain, where Blair plays professionally, ahead of the Games.
When Guardian Australia interviewed Blair at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, he had been forced to temporarily leave his new high-tech chair in Melbourne. But in Tokyo, these difficulties will have all been worthwhile – Blair and the Rollers begin their campaign against Iran on Thursday.
“Ultimately the goal when you are playing wheelchair basketball is to be one with the chair,” he says. “Being in a seat that has been moulded to your body increases that dramatically. Your wheelchair is such a massive component of the game. If you can get an advantage there, it translates on the court.”
Visually, wheelchair basketball shares many similarities with its able-bodied counterpart: the game is fast, aggressive and tactical. But there is one significant difference: maths. Players are classified according to their impairment from one to four and half (most to least impaired). Teams cannot have more than 14 points on the court at any time.
“A below-knee amputee would be your typical 4.5 – someone who has almost their entire body working,” says Blair. “Then going down the scale to a class one, which is what I am, who is typically a paraplegic – might have their chest and at most their first abdominal, and that’s probably it. Then as you go up – 1.5 might have a couple more abs, a two might have all their abs, a three might have abs and some leg, fours are typically amputees.”
The point-system requires coaches to be quick with their mental arithmetic. “You’ve gotta be on top of it,” says Blair. “If you go over those 14 points it’s a technical foul. Two techs and you’re generally out of the building [the coach is formally expelled from game].”
The rules also require sophisticated team cohesion as substitutions can radically change the on-court dynamic. “Often times if one player comes into foul trouble or has an injury or isn’t playing well for whatever reason, and has to come out, that will affect more than just one player,” he says. “Maybe taking out someone will affect the line-up too much and so they might take the whole line up off. It’s not as simple as one-for-one changes.”
Now 29, Blair became paraplegic when he was 12 after a car accident on his childhood property near Horsham in regional Victoria. “It’s just what you do on a farm,” he says, rolling his eyes. “I was racing my older brother from one side of the paddock to another, rolled [the ute] and went out the window. I can’t remember what happened – all I remember is light and dark, light and dark as the ute was rolling. Then I woke up a week later after being in a coma. We think the ute rolled over my back as I went out the window.”
As Blair underwent rehabilitation in Melbourne, he witnessed a number of Rollers train at a court within the rehab centre. He was soon watching them on television at the 2004 Athens Games (where the team won the silver medal) and quickly ended up on the court himself. “There are quite good pathways once you get into the system – you can work your way up,” he says. Blair studied in the United States on a university sports scholarship, before moving to Europe.
In that time, media coverage of wheelchair basketball – particularly at the Paralympics – has grown dramatically. Blair recalled seeing the 2004 Games, his introduction to the sport, as part of a short highlights package on SBS. “It was just a half-hour of highlights from all the different sports. Now it has transformed – Channel Seven have brought the rights and the televise everything live. It’s incredible the transition from 2004 when I was first aware of the Paralympics, 2008 when it got better, then since 2012 it’s been very similar coverage to the Olympics.”
Blair has played in Spain in recent years, winning the league this year with Bidaideak Bilbao. The Spanish league is renowned for its high-quality competition. “If you’re playing wheelchair basketball, you make the best money in Spain – money attracts talent and that raises the standard,” he says.
According to Blair, playing internationally has offered the ideal lead-in for the Paralympics (even if it meant enduring a stint in hotel quarantine). “If you’re wanting to compete on your national team, there’s no better preparation in my mind than playing an eight or nine month season over there,” he said. “You’re playing week in week out against international talent.”
The Rollers head to Tokyo with their eyes on gold. “We’re going there to win,” says Blair emphatically. The team are two-time Olympic champions and two-time world champions, but dipped to sixth in 2016.
“We had a pretty poor performance in Rio,” he says. “We’d been a bit of a mainstay in all the major tournaments for the past 20 years. So we had a bit of a change of the guard after that, and we’ve made some changes to our core line-up and to our coaching staff.” With a refreshed team, and their high-tech new seats, the Rollers are optimistic they can return to the Paralympic podium in Tokyo.