Paralympics-Boccia is a Paralympic sport that will bowl you over

Jonathan Liew tries his hand at boccia and meets his match in Beijing gold medallist Zoe Robinson.

Master and apprentice: Zoe Robinson gives Jonathan Liew a lesson in Boccia Photo: PAUL COUSANS

Of all the sports that have, at some stage or another, managed to sweet-talk their way on to the Olympic programme, one of the oddest was ‘Indian clubs’.

A gymnastics event that required its participants to swing two clubs in synchronisation around the head and body, Indian Clubs featured at Los Angeles in 1932 before being consigned to the Olympic scrap-heap, alongside such other pursuits as tug of war, the swimming obstacle race and horse long-jumping.

The short history of Indian clubs goes to show that then, as now, competing in a mainstream sport is no prerequisite for being able to win a gold medal.

Which brings us to boccia, one of the least understood of the 20 sports on the Paralympic programme for London 2012 which is making its debut in this week’s BT Paralympic World Cup in Manchester.

Boccia is unusual among the Paralympic sports in that it is an event created specifically for wheelchair athletes, rather than adapted from an able-bodied counterpart. While it is fairly easy for the able-bodied to take up – just grab a chair – competition is restricted to those with cerebral palsy and other motor disabilities.

So what is it like? “A bit like bowls,” is the stock answer, but the comparison masks more than it reveals. At a superficial level, both sports feature a jack and the scoring systems are alike, with one point awarded for each ball closer to the jack than the opponent’s closest.

But there the similarities end. For a start, the ball can be thrown, rolled, bounced, hurled – anything you like. If you are severely disabled, you get a ramp to roll the ball down and an assistant to help position it. The balls are soft, like slightly sturdier Hacky Sacks, making them harder to knock out of the way once in play.

Tactically, too, boccia is a far richer game. The fact that its participants are often of mixed abilities, sorted into four classifications ranging from BC1 to BC4, adds extra intricacy.

For example, if you’re up against an opponent who can’t project the ball very far, then you simply roll the jack into the very furthest corner of the court (which is exactly the same size and shape as a badminton court). Paralympians are brutal like that.

Since boccia was introduced into the Paralympics in 1984, Britain has turned out a handful of decent players, but in recent years an entire generation of talent has emerged. At its forefront is 21-year-old Zoe Robinson, who was part of the BC1-2 team that won Britain’s first-ever team gold medal in Beijing and will go for a second gold at London’s ExCeL Centre next year.

  • Why boccia?
    Boccia (pronounced with a soft ‘c’) derives from the traditional Italian game, bocce, which itself is closely related to other European bowling sports such as lawn bowls and petanque. In fact, in Italian ‘bocce’ is the plural of ‘boccia’, which simply means ‘ball’.
  • The name ‘boccia’ was thus devised, it seems, for two reasons: firstly, to distinguish the Paralympic sport from the older, able-bodied game; and secondly, to avoid having a sport whose name translated literally as ‘balls’.

At first glance, Robinson doesn’t necessarily strike you as an elite athlete. She’s slight and still looks remarkably young. She giggles. A lot.

But put a set of six boccia balls in the tray attached to the arm of her chair, and she transforms into a world-beating demon.

It is a gruelling existence. When she isn’t travelling to competitions, Robinson is practising virtually every day for several hours, honing her technique, building up her strength. It might not look like a physical sport, but it takes real steel to lean over the side of a chair for hours at a time.

The shoulder joints come under particular strain. And that’s before we get to the mental challenge of rolling a 10oz ball to within millimetres, possibly with a gold medal hanging on the outcome.

As I find out when I take Robinson on at her local leisure centre in Bury.

Confidently I roll my red ball towards the jack. Robinson then lines up her shot, knocking my red out of the way and replacing it with her blue. And there it stays for the entire game. I try everything –flinging it overarm, aiming it darts-style, rolling it, cajoling it, spinning it, flipping it.

Eventually I run out of balls – in boccia, players keep throwing until they manage to land closer to the jack – whereupon Robinson plays all her remaining balls, swaddling the jack in a sea of blue.

She doesn’t even seem to be trying. Next end, Robinson rolls the jack a very short distance down the centre, making it easy to hit. Is that a recognised tactic? “Only against certain opponents,” she replies. Charming.

To cut a long story short, I lose. By a very long way. The skill involved, the judgment of pace, trajectory and line, make it a game far harder to master than would appear at first glance. Bowls? Yes, but with the nerve-shredding intensity of those flying Indian clubs.

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