‘Devastated’ Bates prepares for legal battle over ban
Wheelchair basketball player stunned by Paralympics ruling over his condition and is now considering amputation
Growing up in Leicestershire, George Bates always loved sport. Football, golf and cricket were his main passions, but life would forever change at the age of just 11 following a seemingly innocuous but chronic injury. The twisted ankle that he sustained during a football match would not heal and, for two long years, he could not put any weight on his left leg and there was no definite explanation.
Complex Regional Pain Syndrome was eventually diagnosed and, following a month in hospital in Bath, much of Bates’s childhood years were spent attending sessions with physiotherapists, hydrotherapists and psychologists. “It was a chaotic time – I had my life turned upside down,” he says.
The injury also prompted serious and prolonged mental health challenges to the extent that he was “in a position where I was contemplating if I wanted to carry on with my life”. But from the age of 13, Bates also began to rediscover sport in the form of wheelchair basketball. And, while the daily pain from what is an incurable condition will remain lifelong, the psychological change would become transformational. “Mental health-wise, it was the best thing that could have happened,” he says. “I met other disabled people for the first time and realised that you can still carry on. I saw people who had been through worse and it was, ‘Wow, I can get through this’. It was a difficult time but basketball gave me an outlet. It gave me happiness. I had always loved sport and I really struggled with not being able to do anything. I didn’t think I would ever be able to do anything or achieve anything when I got my injury. It opened my eyes to the fact that you can still achieve things with disability. It dragged me out of a dark pit.”
The impact of his disability was clear: muscle wastage, loss of power, an inability to walk unaided and the need to use a chair over long distances.
The discomfort also meant that he was offered the “heartbreaking option” to have his left leg amputated but, with CRPS believed to be a condition that is linked to the central nervous system, there was no certainty of any improvement. There was also still the prospect of some limited future movement.
Bates’s school grades were good enough for university, but he was invited on to one of the Great Britain wheelchair basketball junior teams at the age of 17 and he has since played and trained full-time. A three-year spell in Italy has been followed by two years in Spain, where he now plays for the Mideba club in Badajoz. Now 26, Bates has also received funding from UK Sport for the past four years and has become one of the stars of the British men’s team that respectively won the World and European Championships in 2018 and 2019. Wheelchair basketball also became one of the popular Paralympic sports in Great Britain following the London 2012 Games and, as well as a significant participation boom, an event in which Team GB’s obvious medal potential attracted £7.2 million in Lottery funding during this current Tokyo cycle. A major international row,
however, had been brewing behind the scenes. As revealed in January by
The Daily Telegraph, the International Paralympic Committee had told the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation that the entire sport would be thrown out of the Games if it did not reassess the athletes who were classified among the least impaired. The two governing bodies have different rule books and Bates flew back to the UK in March for his assessment. The IPC does not recognise pain-based conditions, but Bates had thought that the related physical consequences of his disability would satisfy its 10-point impairment code.
“It was a concern to start with but I saw some of the other players and thought, if they have passed the test, then I am not particularly worried,” he says. “There were people far more able than I am.”
The coronavirus lockdown then came and, with most of his belongings still in Spain, Bates has been living with his girlfriend in Rotherham and unable to train for the past four months. “We were supposed to find out in May what was going on and it got delayed,” he says. “I should have found out in June and there was a further delay because I had been left off the list. Then I was expecting to hear last Friday and was told at 4.30pm they were still reviewing it. I then got an email on Tuesday to say I was ineligible.”
Bates feels like he has been the victim of a dispute between the IPC and the IWBF but points out that “the punishment” is all being absorbed by the athletes. “It’s hard to take in – I’m devastated,” he says.
Although Bates is the only British athlete affected, there are eight other wheelchair basketball players from other countries who have so far been deemed ineligible. “I will be heading down a legal route – there is a lot of talk about joining up and a multi-athlete complaint,” he says. “I have had hundreds of messages of support and people with similar disabilities, younger generations, are urging me to fight it.”
There is a 30-day window in which he can appeal and, even if that is unsuccessful, there is still
‘I have had hundreds of messages of support and people are urging me to fight it’
the prospect of playing for his club in IWBF events, which may still operate to a different impairment criteria. Bates’s dream, however, has always been the Paralympics.
“As horrible as it is, I have to be realistic and look at all these issues and situations,” he says. “I have never had a normal job. I’ve not got that work experience. I’ve dedicated myself to wheelchair basketball. I’d have to work out what I would do long term.”
Amputating his left leg would be one option and, while he says that he would “have to speak to my family about it”, it has been a genuine consideration. The overriding urge, though, is to fight on, and his popularity and importance within the British team was last night underlined. “Wheelchair basketball is a torch-bearing Paralympic sport whose whole ethos is built around inclusion,” said the captain Philip Pratt. “This decision to me leaves a big hole in that mantra and a bigger hole in a team we have all given much of our lives to. Something has to change.”
Best of British: George Bates (right) in action for his country in 2017 and (below left) with Terence Bywater after winning the world title a year later