Blindfolds, bells and bangs: goalball is rougher than your average sport

You don’t need good eyesight to take part in this event – which has been tailor-made for the Paralympics – but raw courage is a must, as Jerome Taylor discovers

When Jamie Hodgson was diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition and was forced to give up playing rugby league, he never thought he’d take part in a sport again. “I thought that was it,” the 27-year-old father of two from York said. “It was a difficult time. It was like my involvement in sport was over.”

But as he struggled to come to terms with the loss of both his hobby and his eyesight, his mobility worker suggested he try out goalball – a game specially developed for athletes with visual impairments.  “I’d never heard of it,” Mr Hodgson recalled. “And once I’d found out what it was I thought they were nuts. But I’m so glad they persuaded me. It’s made such a difference to my life.”

Most sporting disciplines at the Paralympics are variants of Olympic sports that have been adapted. But goalball is one of three sports to be developed from scratch, for players with impairments (the others are boccia and wheelchair rugby). Its origins are in the aftermath of the Second World War, when physicians tried to find ways to rehabilitate thousands of servicemen who had been blinded on the battlefield, creating a sport that those with no vision at all could play.

Six decades on and goalball is one of the most inventive and fascinating sports on offer at the Paralympics. Two teams of three blindfolded players face off against each other on a pitch about the same size as a basketball court. They use a large ball, filled with two bells, and hurl it at the opposing team. Using nothing but their speed and ability to “see” the ball with their ears, the players have to dive in front of the ball to stop it reaching a back net. The best servers try to make the ball travel as silently as possible. All players wear dark glasses, allowing those with limited vision to compete alongside those with none. Players find their way around the court by feeling for tactile lines.

“It is not a sport for the fainthearted,” says Rob Tyas, who coaches goalball at the York St John Inclusive Activity Club. “The ball weighs 1.25kg and comes at you hard. The fastest serve recorded was 85mph and the average is 35-45mph. It’s incredibly intense. There aren’t many sports that require you to hurl yourself in front of a ball with such frequency. In terms of the pain threshold, it’s similar to rugby.”

The USA women’s team are the defending Paralympic champions but face stiff competition from the Canadian and Chinese teams who have invested heavily in goalball over the past five years. In the men’s competition the Lithuanians, Chinese and Finnish are all seen as potential gold winners. Team GB is not expected to make the podium, but a home crowd will help.

Mr Hodgson, who only began playing goalball in January, has already been scouted by Team GB and has his sights set on the Rio Paralympics.

“That’s the dream,” he says. “But the most important thing is that goalball has given me so much more confidence. It’s helped me with my blindness, given me better coordination and has made me happier. And that makes my partner and kids happier.”

Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
Jonathan de Guzman of the Netherlands and Willian of Brazil compete for the ball
world cup 2014LIVE BLOG: Hosts Brazil take on the Netherlands in third-place play-off
Tommy Ramone performing at The Old Waldorf Nightclub in 1978 in San Francisco, California.
peopleDrummer Tommy was last surviving member of seminal band
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Several male celebrities have confessed to being on a diet, including, from left to right, Hugh Grant, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ryan Reynolds
life...and the weight loss industry is rubbing its hands in glee
Spectators photograph the Tour de France riders as they make their way through the Yorkshire countryside
voicesHoward Jacobson: Line the streets for a cycling race? You might just as well watch a swarm of wasps
Life and Style
lifeHere's one answer to an inquisitive Reddit user's question
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
arts + entsReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Caption competition
Caption competition
Daily World Cup Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice