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London 2012: The heart and gold of boccia

By Neerja Vasishta & Mimo Funakoshi
BBC London

PACE members
PACE members play boccia in Ealing

"It is all out war on the courts." That's boccia, according to Krishna Birdy, founder of PACE, a charity to set up promote sport among people with disabilities.

Dan Bentley
GB's Dan Bentley pumping his fist in the Beijing Paralympics

She says players compete against one another but also "are fighting against their own disabilities. You mentally and psychologically need to psyche yourself up."

It may sound like a culinary delicacy, but boccia (sounds like botcha) is one of three Paralympic sports without an Olympic counterpart (goalball and powerlifting are the other two).

What is boccia?

The aim is to throw or bowl balls to get closest to a target ball called a jack. It is related to petanque, or bowls, yet it is far less known.

The best part of taking part in Boccia is quite simple. Nothing compares to the thrill of winning.
Ali Lalani, GB Boccia team player

Us Brits are pretty good at it.

In the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, Team GB brought home gold and silver in two boccia events and there are high hopes for them to win big on home soil in the 2012 Games.

"The best part of taking part in boccia is quite simple. Nothing compares to the thrill of winning," said Ali Lalani, a member of the GB Paralympic boccia team for the past five years.

Ali Lalani
Ali Lalani, GB boccia team player

Ali added: "I think it's the only game in the world where a person with a disability can play a non-disabled person and beat them."

Local grown talent

Boccia is not an obscure sport for elite athletes. All across London small venues host aspiring players who come together to compete in tournaments at local, regional, and national levels.

According to Lucy Hall at Cerebral Palsy Sport, boccia is such a grassroots sport that the actual number of people playing is unknown.

But over 250 young people recently competed in the London Youth Games and over 700 people in 143 teams entered the 2009/2010 National Pan Disability Boccia League. Ten of those teams were from London.

PACE, based in Wembley, is one of those grassroots organisations around London that provides sporting opportunities for those with disabilities.

Boccia facts
Players must be in a wheelchair. They can use devices such as ramps or chutes if they cannot throw or kick balls
Boccia can be played individually, in pairs, or as a team (three against three)
There are four classifications depending on the level of disability
Seven boccia medals are up for grabs in the Paralympics
Boccia is believed to have originated in Greece
Over 700 people in 143 teams entered the 2009/2010 National Pan Disability Boccia League. Ten teams were from London

Grassroots organisations can produce high-quality talent and many positive side effects. PACE squad members say boccia boosts confidence, increases their muscular control, and builds leadership through coaching or serving as squad captain.

Over time, PACE sees players gain freedom, independence and ways to meet friends.

"I'm sure that many disabled people don't really get to do a lot of things because they may be restricted and boccia is one of the ways they could go out and do some social activities as well," explains 17-year-old Alex Dukes, a squad member of PACE.

Michael Forrest, another squad member, has cerebral palsy and qualified for the national finals.

Krishna remembers it was something they had never thought of and being able to play at that level is a great achievement for him.

Ali explains "[boccia] is for athletes with the highest degree of disability within the Paralympics. So for us, muscle control and accuracy is already impaired to a certain degree. To be able to control our movements and our shots makes the achievements much more remarkable."

PACE squad members
PACE looking forward to 2012

High hopes for 2012

2012 is especially important for England since the Paralympics originated here in 1948 with a competition for wheelchair athletes at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire.

This eventually evolved into the modern-day Paralympics and 2012 is often referred to the year when the Games truly come home.

Sport Operations Manager at Paralympics GB Duncan Tunbridge helps identify and support a core team of 20 for the GB Paralympic squad.

He said a survey undertaken by Lloyds TSB showed boccia was the least known Paralympic sport, yet it was the one people wanted to learn more about.

"Currently awareness is low, but certainly schoolchildren's curiosity is there to find out about the sport. Hopefully London 2012 will provide a platform for that."

You just don't know where the future Paralympians or Olympians are going to come from.
Krishna Birdy, founder of PACE

So what should Londoners know about boccia in the lead-up to 2012?

Alex says: "In the disabled community, boccia is a very popular sport. It's a very mental and tactical game as well."

The GB boccia team for 2012 will be chosen in November.

Did the success of the 2008 Great Britain team motivate grassroots players?

No doubt, says Alex: "Yes! I could see how passionate they were… I'm hoping to emulate that one day."

GB boccia team win three silvers
11 Jun 10 |  Disability Sport
GB boccia team clinch gold medal
12 Sep 08 |  Disability Sport



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