Veteran wheelchair basketball player David Eng has been forced off Canada’s Paralympic team because of a realigning of eligibility standards.
The 43-year-old from Montreal helped Canada win Paralympic gold in 2004 and 2012, and a silver in 2008.
But Canada’s flag-bearer at the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro will not compete in Tokyo next year.
“This is obviously not how I intended to end my international career and I’m disappointed to not be able to finish what I started with my teammates next year in Tokyo,” Eng said in a statement Thursday issued by Wheelchair Basketball Canada.
Under orders from the International Paralympic Committee, the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation is reassessing athletes for eligibility.
At issue is classification codes, which determine if athletes are eligible to compete in Paralympic sport and in what group of competitors to ensure a “level playing field.”
Wheelchair basketball players are classified from 1 to 4.5 with trunk control and sitting balance the main difference between classes. The point sum of five players on the basketball court can’t exceed 14.
The IPC’s position is wheelchair basketball has for years operated under its own classifications and allowed athletes to compete who don’t meet the Paralympic standard.
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 next year because of COVID-19 pandemic.
The IPC demanded all Tokyo-bound wheelchair basketball players in classifications 4.0 or 4.5 — the highest mobility — get reassessed. Players deemed not to have an “eligible impairment” won’t be allowed to compete at the Paralympic Games.
Eng, who was born with one leg shorter than the other, is the only Canadian athlete impacted so far among 14 in the national-team pool undergoing reassessment.
Three Canadian athletes have been cleared to compete, but the process is still ongoing, according to WBC.
Eng was Canada’s co-captain in Rio. He started playing wheelchair basketball at age 12.
He played college ball at the University of Texas in Arlington, as well with club teams Gladiateurs de Laval and the New York Rollin Knicks.
“I am proud to have competed with the Maple Leaf on my chest and to have been a part of the golden years for Team Canada,” Eng said in the statement. “This is a very challenging time with everything going on in the world and our sport. I don’t want to be a distraction for my teammates.
“Know that I had a great run, and will be with you in spirit every step of the way. Go get that podium.”
He declined further comment through Wheelchair Basketball Canada.
“It’s a huge loss for the team and one which will take a little while to process,” Canadian teammate Patrick Anderson told The Canadian Press. “Dave has been kind of the heart and soul of this program for many, many years. Not only is he a great player and a great veteran leader, but he’s a real connector.
“He’s sipping wine with the veterans one night and the next night he’s out with the kids watching Marvel movies at the theatre. You can’t replace that by saying next man up.”
Anderson, a three-time Paralympic gold medallist, is considered by many to be the best wheelchair basketball player in the world.
The 40-year-old from Edmonton is also classified at 4.5.
Under the IPC’s “limb deficiency” standard, Anderson is eligible to compete in Tokyo because he’s missing both legs below the knee. But he wouldn’t comment on his own status.
“I’m just going to keep this about Dave for now,” Anderson said.
Of the 134 international players who have been reassessed so far, the IWBF says 75 per cent have received a decision.
“Certainly the process could have either begun much sooner or been pushed back until after Tokyo,” Anderson said.
“It reached a breaking point in January of 2020 … and then they decided it had got so bad, that all of a sudden they had to dangle the athletes over the fire so to speak, and that’s just really unfair.
“Maybe the IWBF did need a wake-up call, but not at the expense of the athletes who have been training for a number of years, not to mention an athlete who is a pinnacle Paralympian like Dave.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 18, 2020.
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press