Great Britain's Nigel Murray in Boccia action
Great Britain's Nigel Murray in boccia action Image Credit: AFP

Do you know what boccia, goalball and dartchery are?

All three are sports unique to the Paralympic Games and though dartchery is no longer a competitive sport at the quadrennial Games, boccia and goalball will be part of the programme at the Tokyo Paralympic Games, which will be held from August 24 to September 5 in the Japanese capital.

In all, the Summer Paralympic Games has 22 sports with para-badminton and para-taekwondo as the latest addition at Tokyo 2020.

With the participants in Paralympic Games having impairments, the rules of Olympic sports have been modified, making them different from those that are part of the Olympic Games programme.

So, let’s get to know boccia and goalball!

Both boccia and goalball are Paralympic-specific sports and are the only two sports in the Paralympic programme that do not have an Olympic counterpart.

Boccia’s roots date back to Ancient Greece, where players threw large stones at a stone target. There were also objects and mural engravings relating to a similar form of boccia that were found as early as 5200BC during the excavation of the tombs in Egypt. The sport was also played in marketplaces and in the streets during the Middle Ages, and the word ‘boccia’ is derived from the Italian meaning to bowl.

In modern boccia, the target is a white ball called the ‘jack’, and whoever throws/rolls their ball closest to the jack gets a point.

The sport is played on a flat, smooth surface, where players must throw or roll coloured balls as close as possible to the jack. The player, pair or team with the most balls near the jack is the winner.

The individual and pair matches consist of four ends, while team matches have six ends — each athlete, pair or team throws six balls per end. After each end, the athlete, pair or team with the ball closest to the jack receive one point and an additional point for every ball that is closer to the jack than the opponent. Players in the BC3 class have severe impairments that impact all limbs and therefore may use an assistive device such as a ramp or pointer to deliver the ball.

In all, seven gold medals will be awarded in boccia at the Tokyo Paralympics.

Boccia is a game of strategy and accuracy that was originally designed to be played by people with cerebral palsy. Now, the sport includes athletes with impairments that affect motor skills.

Meica Horsburgh represents Australia in goalball
Meica Horsburgh represents Australia in goalball Image Credit: Supplied Paralympics Australia

In contrast, goalball’s origin is more recent as it was invented in 1946 to help rehabilitate veterans who had lost their sight during the Second World War. Hans Lorenzen of Austria and Sepp Reindle of Germany are credited with inventing the game.

The basic premise of goalball is to score goals by quickly and precisely throwing a 1.25kg ball and defending shots from the opposing team. Each team has three players on the court who can use their entire body to stop the ball, throwing themselves to the floor in the right position. The floor is not cushioned and there is no face protection other than eyeshades, making goalball a tough sport both mentally and physically. To make it even more challenging, the goals span the width of the 9m court.

Dartchery, which could best be described as a combination between darts and archery, once was part of the Paralympic programme. It was even one of the eight sports at the inaugural Games in Rome in 1960 and was conducted in the Games of 1964, 1972, 1976, and 1980 before being dropped from the programme. In dartchery, participants shot arrows, not at a target but a dartboard, and competitions were conducted in individual and pairs events for men and women and a mixed pairs event.

While these unusual sports give the Paralympic Games a unique flavour, the counterparts of regular Olympic sports too have their own Paralympic-specific rules, the participants are also given special relaxations because of the specific impairments of the participants.

For example, players are allowed two bounces of the ball in wheelchair tennis whereas, in wheelchair basketball, a player is allowed two touches of their wheelchair in between a dribble, a shot, or a pass. Otherwise, it is a travel violation.

Since athletes with different levels of vision impairment can compete in goalball, all players must wear eyeshades to compete and therefore ensure a fair competition.

Spectators need to stay silent during football five-a-side and goalball games as players rely on the ball’s sound.

Five-a-side is one of three sports on the Paralympic programme exclusively for athletes with visual impairments. It is relatively new to the Paralympics, having debuted at Athens 2004. Six countries competed in the inaugural tournament: Argentina, Brazil, France, Greece, South Korea, and Spain.

Though it has some similarities with non-Paralympic five-a-side football there are some rule modifications. For example, there is no offside rule, and players can enter the penalty area with the ball and take a shot. The goalkeeper also has a smaller, rectangular area in which he/she must stay inside.

There must be complete silence during games to allow the players to hear the ball (which has a bell inside), other players, and instructions from guides. This means that fans, coaches, and teammates are not allowed to cheer or make sounds …until a goal is scored.

The players must be eligible for a single class: B1. This means they have severe levels of vision impairment such as low visual acuity and/or no light perception. Athletes must also wear eyeshades during games but the goalkeeper, who cannot leave the area, can be sighted or partially sighted. Sighted coaches are stationed behind the goal to guide the players in the right direction.

Para equestrian is the only artistic sport on the Paralympic Games programme. It includes mixed-gender dressage events (team, individual and freestyle), with athletes being grouped across five classes depending upon the nature and extent of their physical or vision impairment.

While teams in Olympic volleyball are separated by a raised net (2.43m and 2.24m from the top of the net for men’s and women’s competitions, respectively), sitting volleyball is played from a lower net (1.15m for men, 1.05m for women). An important rule in sitting volleyball is that players must be sitting and their torso must maintain contact with the floor when playing the ball.

These special sports and alterations to regular sports give the Paralympic Games a unique stature and make them enjoyable and highly competitive.