The Covid-19 pandemic that wreaked havoc in every sphere of our lives, including sport, coincided with a challenging but promising period for Wheelchair Basketball South Africa (WBSA).
The restrictions imposed by the government, as well as cash-strapped sponsors withdrawing support, hurt many athletes and sporting bodies. Despite these obstacles, WBSA was determined to host the National Women’s Wheelchair Basketball League (NWWBL). Their persistence paid off, with the fourth edition of the tournament that was held last year in November, at the Vodacom Mandeville Indoor Sports Centre in Johannesburg, marking the highest participation of women in the sport.
This is a huge accomplishment and a positive move for women’s wheelchair basketball, which historically has existed in the shadows of the men’s division.
In 2015, women played as a sideshow in the men’s SuperSport Series as there was low participation. However, in 2017, WBSA introduced the NWWBL, which was formed with the intention of giving women more opportunities to play in their own dedicated league.
The tournament started with four teams. Two more teams were added a year later and, in 2020, the tournament had its highest participation with eight teams. Those who made history were North West Stinging Bees, Mother City Wheelers, Eastern Cape Angels, Free State Rollers, Gauteng Lioness, KwaZulu-Natal Warriors and the newly added Limpopo Ladyhawks and Mpumalanga Bushbucks.
Planning the NWWBL tournament during a pandemic presented a lot of challenges for WBSA. To make it worse, two massive sponsors pulled out a week before the start of the tournament. “Our sponsors, for whatever reasons, were unable to fulfil their contractual obligations with us and it was obviously due to the Covid situation and concerns of safety,” said Gerry Smith, director of high performance and coaching, and a member of the board of directors at WBSA.
“A month before, we had successfully done the SuperSport Series so we felt confident that we could deliver a safe event. There was a lot of discussion about whether we could afford it. What happens if Covid drags on and if that would put us in a situation where we might have to close our doors? We reached the point where we just crossed our fingers and decided to go ahead whether we had a sponsor or not.”
A costly, but important, exercise
The league was primarily financed by cash reserves that WBSA had accumulated, along with money from smaller sponsors and by funds they received from the National Lottery Fund. The competition ran for a week and efforts to organise the tournament were led by Smith and Charles Saunders, CEO of WBSA and president of the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF) in the Africa Zone.
WBSA hosted the league in a bubble. Most of the players were accommodated at the WBSA campus while others stayed in an approved hotel nearby. Once the teams arrived at the campus, their trolleys and the vehicles they had used were immediately defogged and sanitised. The court facilities, offices and changing rooms were also cleaned frequently and daily temperature checks were conducted. During the games, players, coaches, officials and training staff were mandated to have their masks on when on the sidelines.
People in the bubble were consistently monitored, and if anyone showed symptoms of Covid-19, they were isolated and tested. There were also safety measures put in place for catering as servings of food and liquid were made for individuals. “It was quite an intense operation with a lot of pre-planning; and it was a costly exercise. There were so many measures we had to take into consideration. We were working on a shoe-string budget but we made it happen,” Smith stated.
The Stinging Bees won the final with a low score of 21-8 against the Warriors. While the tournament was successful, Smith noted a couple of worrying trends – particularly concerning the fitness and performance of players. This makes it difficult for WBSA to promote women’s wheelchair basketball and secure television and media exposure if the performances are not up to par.
“We were not training at all during the first lockdown. We were doing indoor exercises, but it was difficult to keep the body strong. The regulations affected performance because we were not allowed to go train or play,” said Linda Bosele, captain of Stinging Bees and of the national side, Amawheelagirls.
Samkelisiwe Mbatha, who is on the Warriors’ books, adds: “We thought that we weren’t going to be able to play because we had not trained for a long period and some of us gained a lot of weight. They told us a month before the tournament that we were going to play so we had little time to prepare.”
Going back to basics
Long periods without training can lead to loss of muscle mass and low cardiac fitness that affects strength, endurance and speed. Mbatha says that the last time she trained was in November 2019 for the 2021 Tokyo Paralympic qualifiers. “I was at home and I wasn’t doing much,” Mbatha said. “It is very hard to train alone. I did some home workouts but it wasn’t easy to prepare for the season. I used to be one of the fastest wheelchair pushers in KwaZulu-Natal but now, I have lagged a lot.”
The extended time under confinement also takes a mental toll on athletes. Not training can lead to stress, insomnia, irritability and frustration. Mbatha reports that she experienced some of these symptoms under lockdown and wondered if she would be able to return to the sport.
“When I’m playing basketball, I totally forget that I have a disability. It’s like I’m living in my own world. Being at home and not playing, you think about your disability and what you can’t do. You think of yourself as a useless person and I had a lot of stress and it was something that I’m not used to,” she said.
The decline in performance was visible in both tournaments (SuperSport Series and NWWBL) and it translated to the national level. Both the women’s and men’s sides failed to qualify for the Tokyo Paralympics.
In order to rectify the problem, WBSA launched an educational programme called “Back to Basics” to encourage better nutritional and exercising practices. They held several webinars with American professional coaches and trainers, to guide the players.
One of WBSA’s more immediate goals is to make women’s wheelchair basketball in the country more competitive and on a par with international standards. Currently, Algeria, Morocco and Egypt dominate on the continental level because most of their players can play professionally in the European leagues.
No money to help spur growth
It has been difficult to organise camps for both the men’s and women’s sides to prepare for upcoming tournaments such as the Under-23 World Championship set to take place in September, the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games qualifiers, the 2022 World Championship qualifiers and the 2024 Summer Paralympics qualifiers. Part of the reason is that some of the sponsorship deals are still on hold. As a result, it makes it hard for WBSA to operate normally and to ensure that teams can compete on an international level.
Smith expressed concern about this, saying: “Under normal circumstances, we would have had seven or eight national-team camps for the men and women but we haven’t been able to have a camp at all. That is difficult. Because if the players aren’t prepared, then they won’t perform and the sponsors aren’t going to want to be involved. So, it can create a snowfall effect.”
In the meantime, the WBSA is trying to improve club structures at provincial level. They have put a concerted effort into growing the Provincial Club Championship League. The league serves as a prerequisite qualifier for the National Club Competition. The top two clubs to emerge from the competition are invited to take part in the Terence De Bruyn Cup (National Men’s Club Championships) and the Dee Olivier Cup (National Women’s Club Championships).
In terms of their longer term strategy to improve the sport, the WBSA has set up the National Junior Academy for Under-18s and Under-19s. They are also looking to launch the National Schools League in 2022, which will serve to identify youth with talent and teach them the fundamentals of basketball.
They are also trying to set up a pipeline for students to study and play basketball at the University of Alabama in the US so that they can improve their skills and have access to better resources. The American college has also invited the national men and women’s team to the US to compete in friendly games in December this year. All these actions are part of the vigorous effort by WBSA to make South Africa a competitive side on the world stage.
“We have so much potential but there is a lot of work to do. I am very impressed with how quickly our women’s game is developing. We have a lot of youthful players and they are getting better and better. We are on track to reclaim the top spot in Africa. Our goal is to ensure our ladies compete with the best and not just participate. There is no reason why they cannot,” said Smith.