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Superstar Ryley Batt still in a class of his own

IT TOOK about 10 seconds of yesterday's wheelchair rugby opener between Australia and Sweden to establish that there was a superstar on view.

Ryley Batt rose above the other seven players from the off, a class apart. But that's been the 23-year-old Australian's problem in recent years. He is so good at what he does that there have been calls for him to be classified out of his sport and, effectively, banned for being better than anybody else.

It is an issue that lurks just under the surface at the Paralympic Games where everybody is disabled, but not to the same degree. Classification is supposed to level the playing field, but there are some cases -- like in Ireland's Jason Smyth and Michael McKillop's field -- where a dominant force prevails.

Such is the nature of elite sport, but the Paralympics have to balance inclusivity and, as a team game, wheelchair rugby has an inclusive ethos.

Yesterday, in the second game of his third Paralympics, Batt was sensational. Quicker than anybody else on the court, the skinhead whose arms are covered in tattoos made audacious plays as a matter of course.

Batt seemed to be able to manipulate his wheelchair to do whatever he wanted it to do, at one point he defied logic with what can only be described as a 'side-step' around a befuddled Swede.

Batt clocked up 30 of his team's 60 points in a 60-47 win (he scored 37 in Wednesday's win over Canada) and when the Swedes went forward they found him hurling his chair in their direction with reckless abandon.

He was knocked out of his own chair four times and by the end had required four new tyres. The man was a blur of energy and action. Wheelchair rugby's rules are supposed to counter one player's dominance. Each player is assigned a ranking according to their disability, with 0.5 representing the least able and 3.5 the most. Athletes ranked 4 and over are not allowed to participate, while the four players on the court at any one time cannot have a combined ranking of more than eight.

Born without legs and with only two fingers in each hand, Batt began playing as a 2.5 when he became Australia's youngest ever player at 15, but at Athens he was upgraded to 3.5. A sport that was initially designed for victims of spinal injuries, wheelchair rugby's popularity has grown on the back of documentary 'Murderball' which attracted players born with disabilities like Batt.

The expansion has been good for the sport, but it has brought problems in classification and concerns are being expressed that the likes of Batt, who can use muscles that other players cannot, is ruining the team ethic.


"Obviously he's expensive for the Australian team, but it takes more than 3.5 points to nail him down. Sometimes it takes three players," former British player Justin Frishberg said before the Games. "He is probably too good to play wheelchair rugby, but I'd rather wait to see how he performs at London 2012 before fully forming an opinion."

The man himself reckons that he can be stopped and, when he was asked if he was too good, he replied: "People might label me the best player in the world, I don't think that. Teams can stop me -- they just need to work out how. You watch the United States playing against us and they'll contain me really easily."

But whatever needs to be done to level the playing field, on this evidence a ban would be a self-inflicted wound on a sport growing in popularity.

Irish Independent