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Afghanistan: first national wheelchair-basketball tournament

23-06-2010 Feature

In Afghanistan landmines pose a great risk to the population. A lot of people who survive landmine incidents are maimed and confined to a wheelchair permanently. In her work at an ICRC physical rehabilitation centre, Yvonne Jansen meets many who manage to find a silver lining.


  Mazar-i-Sharif. The tournament is about to start.    

Wheelchair basketball is an increasingly popular sport in Afghanistan. It began ten years ago in Mazar-i-Sharif, north Afghanistan, at one of the ICRC's seven orthopaedic centres in the country. The ICRC built an outdoors basketball court and provided equipment and a trainer to encourage patients to experience the challenge and excitement of the game.

In early 2010, the ICRC orthopaedic centre in Herat, western Afghanistan launched a basketball team of its own for its patients and one for some of its staff. The two teams began training three times a week.

As the teams gained confidence, they soon agreed: " We want a tournament! " This was the beginning of a new wheelchair basketball contest that would pit teams from Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat and Maimana against each other.

 The tournament: a long journey  

Travelling to a sporting tournament in a wheelchair may be challenging, but travelling through a war zone is harder still.

Most players from Maimana and Mazar-i-Sharif have a disability due to polio or amputation, and walk with a crutch rather than using a wheelchair. Seven out of ten players from Herat had spinal cord injuries and two are double amputees. One double amputee came from Badghis province. He was a patient at the Herat orthopaedic centre at the beginning of the year. See also: Afghanistan: a long journey for Osman.  

The teams from Maimana, supported by a humanitarian organization involved in health and physical rehabilitation activities in Afghanistan, travelled by road to Mazar-i-Sharif. But for the Herat teams the difficult security situation on the road made an overland trip to Mazar-i-Sharif impossible.

Thanks to the ICRC's air-operations staff however, a special'Red Flight'was organized to bring the Herat teams – via Kabul - to the tournament in the north of the country. For most of the players it was their first time in an aircraft.

The four-day'round-robin'tournament took place between the end of May and early June. Six teams, two from each city played each other. On the last day, two teams composed of the strongest players from each city played each other.

All games were played as much as possible according to international rules. In wheelchair basketball the size of the court, the hoops and the number of team members (five) are all the same as for stand-up basketball. Games were played in four quarters of 10 minutes with a two-minute break. Each city also brought a referee to ensure fair play.

  Mazar-i-Sharif. Players are full of energy and enthusiasm.    

 The games: heat of the moment  

Charged with enthusiasm, energy and competitiveness, the athletes played tough, gruelling games in 35°C heat, wi th the inspiring determination needed to earn every point. At times it was nerve-racking to watch as games were so fast and intense.

The Mazar-i-Sharif teams turned out the strongest, winning the round robin and taking the trophy. They also happened to be the most experienced players. In second place were the teams from Maimana, and third, the fledgling Herat teams.

 Brighter future  

Playing basketball inspires confidence and well-being, and this first tournament was a great success and for most players a dream come true.

In the near future, lightweight and highly mobile sport wheelchairs will be delivered to the orthopaedic centres.

Next on the horizon, a tournament for female wheelchair-basketball teams that are already active in the centres.

Beyond the excitement and challenge of the games themselves, players became close friends, sharing experiences, learning and building lasting personal bonds.