Paralympics: Goalball gets underway at the Copperbox

 

When the Copperbox played host to the handball during the Olympic Games it quickly gained a reputation for being one of the park's more raucous venues. Today the atmosphere was markedly more sedate. But when you play goalball, silence is golden.

That is because those taking part in this most unusual of Paralympic sports are blind and rely solely on their ears to “see” what is happening around them. Three players on two opposing sides take turns to hurl a large ball down a court with the aim of scoring a goal behind their opponents.

The ball is filled with tiny bells that rattle as it moves giving players vital clues as to where it is going. Spectators are regularly reminded to keep their mobile phones turned off and are only encouraged to cheer when a goal is scored.

But just because matches are played in silence doesn't mean the crowd can't have fun. During a bout today between Iran and China's men's team, the Iranians encouraged spectators to cheer them on after they took an early lead and eventually won 9-5. Each time a break was called they would wave their arms in time with the music in a call to arms that quickly found favour among the Copperbox crowd.

Watching a goalball match unfold is to marvel at the ability of athletes with visual impairments to second guess with astonishing precision where the ball will land. All players wear blindfolds to make sure those with partial site are on a level playing field. But given how the players deftly hurl their bodies in front of a ball travelling at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour, one could be forgiven for thinking that none of the competitors on court lack the ability to see. They just do it in a different way.

Tactics and communication are key. Iran's three players often used a series of finger clicks to signal to their team mates what kind of serve was coming up whilst tactile lines on the court allow competitors to know where they are on the court. Those with the best serves are able to hurl the ball in a way that makes as little noise as possible. Others opt for harder to detect but slower bouncing serve.

The atmosphere during the match may be shrouded in silence the pace is frenetic. Within each of the two 12-minute halves the ball can be served as many as 85 times. Any time the ball is out of play the clock stops so although each game is technically lasts 24 minutes they often go on much longer. And the ball weighs an an impressive 1.25kg. When it hits, it hurts.

The British male and female teams are playing goalball at the Paralympics for the first time. As the host nation, our teams were guaranteed entry but they face an almost insurmountable task in making the final stages. This morning the men's team had the unenviable task of going up against world champions Lithuania who thrashed them an impressive 11-1.

But the players remained upbeat. “I think we have to go away from that result and be positive,” said David Knott, a 15 year old college student from Hampshire who plays in the team alongside his brother Adam. “We showed great strength as a team. [Lithuania] are the world champions and we are not the world champions, so obviously they are very very good opposition. But we will learn from our mistakes, we’ll learn from this game and come back tomorrow even stronger.”

“It was always going to be hard,” added 21 year old Niall Graham from Corby. “We’ve something to build on and we can only come back stronger. I thought individually we defended balls well, we had good shots, but we just got hit in a few spots which cost us.”

While Britain has increasingly dominated at the Paralympics, goaaball is something of a weak spot - despite it being an excellent way of getting both the visually impaired and those with good sight to play together in a team sport. But interest in the sport is growing and there are now 22 sports clubs offering goalball as an activity.

The sport was developed after the Second World War to help rehabilitate blind veterans. Many of Britain's new rising stars for future Olympics are themselves former soldiers. Paul Jacobs, a 22-year-old rifleman blinded in Afghanistan, recently took up the sport and hope to head to Rio come 2016. "I have been determined to overcome all the hurdles caused by my injuries and with the help of goalball I can participate in a great team sport environment,” he said. “I only see opportunities not obstacles and I think I can really make a significant difference to the profile of goalball as well as encourage other individuals who have lost their sight."

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