Joined: 14 Jul 2005
Club: BSAC 109
Sport : SubAqua Diving
The scene that greets spectators as they enter the boccia hall is initially a confusing one. Six matches are taking place at once, in a variety of events. Some are being contested by pairs, others between teams of three. In one corner, Great Britain are taking on Slovakia. In another, Great Britain are taking on Greece. Meanwhile, Canada appear simultaneously to be taking on Thailand and South Korea. It is all most baffling.
Men and women are competing alongside each other. Some participants are throwing the ball themselves using their hand; others require the assistance of a helper, a ramp and a specially-designed helmet. Wild bursts of applause, emanating apparently at random from concentrated pockets of spectators dotted throughout the sparse crowd, occasionally punctuate the atmosphere. What is immediately clear is that boccia is a sport that is going to take a good deal of deciphering.
A thorough demystification would be long overdue, in fact. Of all the sports in the Olympic and Paralympic canon, boccia is probably one of the most poorly understood. “It is the least known Paralympic sport, I feel,” says Britain’s Stephen McGuire, who is competing in the BC4 pairs event with his younger brother Peter. “After goalball.”
Ah yes, goalball, that earnest but fatally idiosyncratic pursuit taking place just a few miles away in the Copper Box. The two sports share a number of similarities – long hiatuses dotted by occasional moments of real drama, the fact that they are sports that were specifically devised for disabled athletes. But there is one striking difference: Britain is actually very good at boccia.
At the Beijing Olympics, Britain won a gold in the team BC1-2 event, and a silver in the individual BC2 for Nigel Murray. The 48-year-old Murray is, in fact, something of a legend of the sport, a double Olympic champion and the current world No 1. There are high hopes of surpassing that haul in London. But before that, we had better unpick the various strands that make up boccia and explain what all these different categories mean.
In essence, it is a game of throwing. There is a leather target ball, that is white. The aim is to roll, throw, bounce or spin your ball as close to it as possible. In this respect, it is rather similar to the able-bodied sport of bowls that you may have seen played at the Preston Guild Hall one long, languid afternoon on BBC TWO, but without the white-haired old ladies doing their knitting in the crowd. “This is a game of millimetres,” says Josh Vander Vies of Canada.
But here, the different categories diverge. They are numbered from one to four. BC1 and BC2 are for athletes with cerebral palsy, BC4 is for those with other motor impairments such as muscular dystrophy, and BC3 is mixed. This last category is for the most severely-impaired athletes, whose whole bodies are affected and are unable to grip and propel a ball.
This is where those ramps and natty helmets come in. The player instructs an assistant where to position the ramp and where to place the ball upon it. Higher up the ramp, of course, means a more powerful shot. The assistant must face away from play. When the player is ready, he inclines his head towards the ball and nudges it down the ramp using a rod attached to the top of his helmet. What terrific fun. You suspect that if it weren’t a highly delicate piece of elite sporting equipment, it would be the must-have child’s toy this Christmas.
But if boccia is a game played partly with the head, it is played almost entirely in the head too. Elite players are not averse to fighting dirty. “What you’ve got to do in boccia is put your opponents immediately under pressure,” says Murray after Britain’s opening 8-4 win against Argentina in the team competition. “People can see the tactical side of the game. People started to get into the game, applauding and cheering, and that’s what we want."
“It was phenomenal,” adds team-mate David Smith. “One time, they cheered when the Argentinians missed. In boccia etiquette, that doesn't normally happen.”
One of the keys to boccia, then, is to get mess with an opponent's psychologically. Often competitors will exchange sly words just as an opponent is about to throw. The very best boccia players are as good at trash-talking as they are at throwing. Or, if you are up against an opponent that is unable to throw the ball very far, simply deliver the jack right into the very furthest corner of the playing area, as close to the maximum distance of 12.5 metres as you can get it.
A shame, then, that so little of this Machiavellian intrigue is evident from the stands. If I were in charge, the first thing I would do is to force all players to wear microphones, so every snide put-down is audible to thousands. There would be one game at a time, rather than six. Oh, and those amazing helmets? They would be mandatory for everyone. And not just in boccia, either.
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