You are defending a netted goal nine meters long, the full width of a volleyball court, with the help of two teammates. Across from you the opposing team is gingerly passing a ball back and forth, trying to catch you off balance. The referee announces: “Quiet please. Play.”
With a quick step, one of your opponents does a whirling dervish wind-up and zoom, skims the jingling ball — about the size of a basketball with a weight of three pounds — across the court towards the corner of the goal. You dive and dig the ball out — the crowd sucks in its breath — you toss the ball to a teammate who fires it back… again, again, and again. Someone has to tire soon; finally, you catch a break. The ball bounces high off an opponent’s knee, she bungles it, and… Goal!
The studiously silent crowd roars to life.
Did you realize you can’t see anything at all?
This is the world of goalball, the most amazing sport you have probably never seen. And goalball is played at the Paralympics, the most extraordinary (and second largest) multi-sporting event in the world. In the United States you may have heard something about the Paralympics this summer while watching the Olympics. But in this year’s host city of London, Paralympics news was a bit bigger. In London Oscar Pistorius, the South African “blade runner,” is a household name, but so are British swimmer Ellie Simmonds, the players on the wheelchair rugby teams, the wheelchair basketball players, and the goalball players. In 2012, disability sports have become “real sports,” at least in the UK — as well as China and the Russian Federation, first and second place, respectively, in the Paralympics medal count.
Deciphering why Americans don’t know much about the Paralympics, and sports such as goalball, is tricky. We’re forced to consider that we relegate disability sports and, by extension their elite athletes, to something less than “real” sports and “real” athletes. If elite disability sports were just sideshows where fans applauded out of respect and admiration for the will of the players, that would be one thing. But in the UK the success of the Paralympics has launched an important and sometimes thorny debate on the relationship between sports and politics. Britain’s most decorated Paralympian, Tanni Grey-Thompson, is now a member of the House of Lords and an outspoken advocate for the rights of the disabled. And this year when George Osborne, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer and the face of welfare reform and cuts to disability services in the UK, showed up to hand out medals at the Paralympics he was booed by a crowd of 80,000 in the Olympic Park.
Looking across the Atlantic, if disability sports stand on their own as thrilling, heart-pounding renditions of strength, athleticism and strategy — a reputation of which they are certainly capable of earning — won’t they find a willing American audience? And when they do, what will be the impact on the perceptions and the rights of the disabled in American society? Considering the overwhelming attendance and viewership figures from the London Paralympics we may soon have answers to these questions.
We were introduced to goalball at the London Paralympics earlier this month. Entering the arena, we were immediately met by ushers holding signs requesting, “Silence please.” Understandably, goalball is a sport in which silence is essential and we watched more than one crying baby hustled out of the arena while a circumspect referee waited to begin play. The players have varying degrees of visual impairments. To ensure equality in play, each player wears eye patches, covered by blackout eyeshades. “Seeing the ball” is hearing the ball. Therefore the best boosters in the crowd are the quietest boosters. This is a sport that challenges the spectators to maintain the highest level of civility and decorum. And then the referee waits for silence. “Quiet please. Play!”
Sepp Reindle and Hanz Lorenzen developed goalball for veterans of WWII in Austria. It’s one of the few Paralympic sports designed for disabled players from the ground up, rather than sports readapted for disabled athletes. It was introduced to the Paralympic Games in 1980 for men and 1984 for women, and is now played in more than 100 nations. Long goals, similar to those in soccer, stretch the width of the court, and the aim of each three-player team is to defend those goals. Crouching along lines marked in raised tape, to identify location by touch, players block the ball with their bodies or stand to pitch the ball towards the opposite goal. The court is divided into six zones, and fouls are called for balls that do not make contact in the required zones, or for defensive moves outside specific boundaries. Patience, quick reflexes, an acute sense of spatial location, and coordination with teammates are all skills essential to goalball.
As a spectator, the experience is very different from watching a sport like wheelchair rugby, where the audience buzzes and screams with each play. In a silent stadium, the audience doesn’t react audibly until a goal is official (and if they do, the referee can pause the game until silence is restored). But the tension in the air is palpable. Watching goalball is an exercise in the counterintuitive for spectators, something like watching chess, in the silence and the focused tension of the arena. Everyone sits on the edges of their seats, rapt, until a ball slips between arms or over a leg. In most of the games we saw, teams were tied or very few points ahead of their opponents for the majority of the game. Ending with one or two goals scored is not uncommon, and the reaction to a goal is dramatic.
Like any other sport, goalball teams have their own tactics. Sometimes, one team’s chatter was audible from the stands as they attempted to distract the other team from the ringing of the ball. Tall, bulky players play very differently from small, nimble players who dart across the court. Slow-rolling balls produce softer bells, and fast, bouncing balls force the defenders to react quickly and block with greater height. Goalball athletes play hard, and that investment is obvious on their faces when they win. We watched the gold medal match and ceremony for women’s goalball, and the sheer emotion for Japan’s victory was indescribable. While the mechanics of goalball differ from other sports, the athletes are as distinctive, skilled, and dedicated to victory as any athlete.
Initially, we found ourselves asking the question: is goalball a real sport or just a game? Watching for just a few minutes makes the question irrelevant. Goalball requires strength, endurance, and speed; it tests one’s flexibility, balance, coordination, timing, reaction time, rhythm, and steadiness. It challenges one’s intelligence, accuracy, alertness and creativity. It demands motivation, discipline, and a great deal of practice. Such a combination deserves entrée to popular sport. After watching your first game you still remain speechless. Not because you have be quiet outside the arena, but because you know you have just witnessed something different than anything you’ve seen before. And if it’s different, and it’s sport, then Americans should go crazy for it just like the crowds in London, right?
Not yet. The fact is that no US broadcast companies carried the Paralympics. The funding for disability sport training, coaching, facilities, and league play is limited — the broader cultural awareness minimal. Somehow disability sport still lives in the shadowy world where many of the disabled live, hidden in the plain sight of American life. Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, access for the disabled to education, work, and every other facet of a full life has become a civil rights issue. While the law is paramount, so is the broader culture — and sport has shown the way before as a crucial pathway to minority inclusion in American life. In this sense, disability sport points the way not only to business opportunities for broadcasters and sponsors in our sports-mad society but, most critically, to an expansion of access to recreation and rehabilitation for disabled Americans who may never compete in a Paralympics.
You can ask where an awakening to elite disability sport might lead us — expanded awareness and perhaps even rights and opportunities not just for disabled athletes, but a fuller consideration for the rights and the capabilities of the disabled in society more broadly. And if goalball can do this, then it might not just be the most amazing sport you haven’t seen (yet), it might be one of the most revolutionary, too. • 28 September 2012