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Canada's Bo Hedges leads call for Tokyo wheelchair basketball truce

Paralympic gold medallist Bo Hedges is driving a campaign to reinstate wheelchair basketball players for the Tokyo Paralympic Games in 2021. The 43-year-old from Fort St. John, B.C.

Paralympic gold medallist Bo Hedges is driving a campaign to reinstate wheelchair basketball players for the Tokyo Paralympic Games in 2021.

The 43-year-old from Fort St. John, B.C., and Germany's Mareike Miller represent athletes calling on the International Paralympic Committee and the world governing body of wheelchair basketball to resolve a dispute over athlete eligibility.

Hedges and Miller co-authored a statement released Monday. It's backed by wheelchair hoops players from 10 countries qualified to compete in Tokyo.

They're asking the IPC to reconsider its position and allow all previously eligible athletes to compete there.

Hedges' teammate David Eng, a two-time gold medallist and Canada's flag-bearer at the 2016 Paralympics, is among athletes whose careers were cut short by the realigning of standards.

"Once you start to see friends and teammates from around the world not being able to participate, obviously it kind of catalyzes and gets the athletes talking," Hedges told The Canadian Press. "I just feel strongly that the athletes need to get together and we need to start speaking out about these sort of things and not letting it just be coaches and administrators speaking for us.

"We need to say what we feel and present our ideas to these organizations to make sure that the decisions made are in the best interests for all."

Wheelchair basketball players are classified from 1 to 4.5, with trunk control and sitting balance the main difference between classes.

The IPC's position is wheelchair basketball has for years operated under its own classifications and allowed athletes to compete who don't meet Paralympic standards. In order to force compliance, the IPC made the dramatic move in January to remove wheelchair basketball from the 2024 Paralympics in Paris.

The IPC also threatened at that time to chop the marquee sport from the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, now postponed until 2021 because of COVID-19 pandemic, and demanded the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF) reassess all Tokyo-bound wheelchair basketball players.

Of 132 athletes with 4.0 and 4.5 classifications, Eng and eight athletes from other countries were declared ineligible for Tokyo. Eng was born with one leg shorter than the other.

The reassessment process continues with athletes classified from 1.0 to 3.5, which includes Hedges.

Britain's George Bates, who can't walk without assistance because of leg pain, was ruled off that country's national team because pain-based conditions like his are no longer considered eligible by the IPC.

Bates told the BBC if his appeals are unsuccessful, he'll consider amputating the leg.

The stress of proving eligibility less than a year out from the scheduled start of the Tokyo Paralympics is compounded by COVID-19.

"It's a pretty huge task to be putting on everyone, especially given the landscape of COVID and the world," Hedges said. "If you need documentation from your doctor, it's not that easy, potentially to get it all right now.

"We're very fortunate here in Canada, in terms of being able to do things online and access our doctors, but there's a lot of countries around the world where that isn't the case. It's much more challenging for those athletes."

Hedges spent the spring at his family's cattle ranch in B.C. He was able to compile the documentation needed for his reassessment there.

Now back in Toronto where the Canadian team trains, the winner of Paralympic gold in 2012 awaits a decision from the IWBF.

"My disability, as a spinal cord injury, is one of the easier ones for them to categorize," Hedges said. "You still wonder because you never know, but I'm hopeful and feel confident I should be fine and most of my teammates in the Phase 2 process.

"The challenge is there are some people that seemingly have some very real disabilities that have been deemed ineligible already. You don't want to take things for granted at this point."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 31, 2020.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press