Before the London 2012 Paralympic Games, I knew little of the sport boccia (pronounced bo-ch-a). I hadn’t heard of Great Britain captain Nigel Murray, twice a gold medal winner in the sport, nor of his Beijing team mates Dan Bentley, Zoe Robinson and David Smith, all international class players.
However, after a week watching the sport at ExCeL, a giant exhibition centre in the heart of the London docklands, I had discovered an absolute gem of a sport, one packed with tension and excitement, where a match can be won or lost by millimetres.
On the face of it, boccia is crown green bowls, with competitors in wheelchairs throwing or kicking their balls as close to a jack as possible on a 12.5 x 6 metre flat, smooth hard-court. Only there’s so much more to it than that.
To begin with, competitors are all disabled and split into four classifications. BC1, BC2 and BC3 and BC4, with competitors split in to categories depending on the severity of their cerebal palsy or motor skills disabilities affecting their movement.
The sheer fact that these athletes are able to compete, some of them with guides because of their disability, some of them without, and to such a high, accurate level, is incredible.
The aim of the game is for a player to get his or her ball as close to the jack as possible. With each player having six balls, it’s therefore possible for a player to rack up six points in an end (the equivalent of a frame in snooker) if all their shots were closer to the jack than their opponents nearest ball. With four ends played in an singles match (there are also pairs and a mixed team event), the maximum score possible is 24-0, though a game could finish as close as 2-2 and be decided on a tiebreak.
Once a match starts, and the athletes become embroiled in the battle of end, the tactical battle that ensues is fascinating. The person throwing the jack can chose to play long or short, left or right, depending on their own strengths and the weaknesses of their opponent.
For example, a player didn’t have a large amount of power, they would most likely chose to throw the jack short, allowing them to get closer to it and increasing their chance of being able to move any of their opponents balls that block their way. In theory, then, a player should always win an end on their own throw of the jack.
There are, of course, other tactics involved in the game. This may include defensively blocking off opponents shots or aggressively knocking an opponents ball out of play through powerful rolling shots or “bomb” shots, jump over them altogether. On top of this, I’m also informed that “sledging”, akin to cricket, goes on between opponents during a match!
The different way in which athletes played the game led to some fascinating encounters, none more so than the mixed individual BC4 final between Dirceu Pinto of Brazil and Yuansen Zheng of China, where the deft touch of the Brazilian eventually saw of the power of Zheng in a tiebreak.
Such battles captivated the crowds inside ExCeL, who excitedly applauded any shot that was vaguely close to the jack and welcomed any Brit with rapturous applause. The tension in the arena could often be cut with a knife, the fans respecting the players with silence when it was required, whilst in turn the players greatly respected and appreciated the fans.
One ball really could change an end, and the fans knew that. A player could have be closest with three balls until the last throw of an end, where the opponent could gently guide their ball unbelievably through a cluster of those of the opposition to nestle it gently on the jack – the kind of throw that could blow a whole match wide open.
Thankfully for the British public, Paralympics GB had two successes in boccia, with David Smith picking up a mixed individual BC1 silver medal, whilst Nigel Murray and his team also recorded a bronze medal in the individual mixed team BC1-2 event.
Hopefully, the success will have captured the public’s imagination, because for me watching this sport was thrilling. The fact that these competitors, despite their disabilities, were able to so accurately throw their balls on a consistent basis was incredible, inspiring and, quite simply, fantastic.
It may not be the most energetic or fast moving of sports, but for me, boccia is intriguing, mind-blowing and fascinating, whilst it has also helped opened my mind to the vast inclusiveness and wonder of sport. There is no limitation to who can compete in sport; there are no boundaries, no laws, no limits, and boccia shows just that.