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Blind man watching goalball - silence please

Damon Rose Damon Rose | 09:45 UK time, Friday, 31 August 2012

GB v China women's goalball

At the Copper Box in the Olympic Park on Thursday, there's no expectation of gold, silver or bronze for Team GB.

On day one of the blind person's sport of goalball, Britain's men are up against world champions Lithuania, and the women play China - who also happen to be the women's world champions. Perhaps not the most promising of starts for our teams. But these are the group stages, with no knockouts at this stage.

I've not experienced the game since playing it as a pupil at a special school for blind children in Worcester in the early 1990s. It's a lot of fun to play, but I'm not sure how it will fare as a spectator sport, especially for sighted people. It has nothing to do with hand-eye coordination, as it is all about sounds and listening out for the heavy bell ball that jingles as it moves.

There are only six players on court at any one time, three for each team. All wear eyeshades with eye pads underneath to make absolutely sure no-one with residual vision has an advantage. Touch your eyeshades at the wrong time during a game and you face a penalty. Audio is all important and the crowd must keep absolutely silent while play is in progress.

A general view of goalball at the Copper Box

The very simple idea is that you try to throw the ball past the opposition players and into the goal which stretches the entire width of the court.

Despite feeling like I've come home to an accessible sport, I immediate encounter problems trying to enjoy the game - the audio description headset isn't delivering the descriptive commentary I expect.

Damon Rose

It turns out no-one is providing the extra commentary blind people are coming to expect at events and as an aid to watching television programmes at home. Oh, the irony that the only members of the crowd who can't enjoy the blind football are those who can't see. Luckily, I have an assistant who is able to give me his, albeit unprofessional, take as we both get to grips with the rules.

The GB men lose 11 goals to one as the far bulkier Lithuanians systematically outclassed them.

I bump into an old school pal whose partner is on the women's goalball team. The connections continue - the GB men's team includes brothers Adam and David Knott, and their teammate Michael Sharkey has a sister - Anna - on the women's team. I'm told my former gym teacher might be involved with the squad. I'm beginning to wonder if I'm expected to lend a hand, it's such a small community.

Bjork's quirky song It's Oh So Quiet rings out after each goal and time-out to remind the audience of their responsibility to the athletes. Videos featuring Helen Mirran, Daniel Radcliffe and other British celebrities reinforce the importance of silence by imploring us all to shush or "button it". When mobile phones go off, or babies cry, the audience tenses and officials shout before allowing the game to recommence.

GB v China women's goalball

The balls bounce or skim from end to end, depending on the tactic of the players. If they remain on the ground, they make more noise and so are easily found. If they bounce, it's harder for the players to detect the ball in the air.

There's a great moment in the Turkey v Sweden match when the ball deflects off a Turkish player and rolls silently across the central no-man's-land area and into the Swedish half. None of the players know where it is. The crowd "ooh" - might the Swedes score an own goal if they accidentally bash it? Despite the tactical scrubbing and intense listening, it can't be found and is declared a dead ball and given back to the Swedes. It reminds me of an incident the other week where I put down a pint of lager in my kitchen and then couldn't remember where I'd put it. I spent 10 frustrating minutes gently sweeping and combing all surfaces, worrying all the time that I might knock it over. It was frustrating and undignified and I'm glad no one was watching.


A general view of action during the goalball

A penalty against Turkey makes for an interesting moment as all three Swedes deliberately mix up the sound by running around so their rivals don't know if the ball is likely to come from the Centre or a Winger. Cheeky, and I'm surprised it's allowed. So-called noise penalties can be awarded against a team if they roll the ball in a slow dribble that could cause it to remain silent - blind-unfriendly goals are not cricket.

In the early evening it's the turn of Team GB's women. I study tactics, as best I can. GB talk a lot between themselves to buoy spirits: "come on girls", "all of it", "wrap it up" - technical terms, I assume. The Chinese women don't speak. Is this also a tactic? If your opponents speak, they've pulled off their metaphorical invisibility cloak and this must make it easier for their rivals. With no speaking and no eye contact, the Chinese women communicate positions and tactics by gently tapping their palms on the floor. It wasn't like this at school.

Outside the Copper Box, I speak to the Linford family, who have come along after seeing goalball on TV. With its quick-fire editing, they'd expected it to be at a faster pace. The Ibbotson family, from Tunbridge Wells, say they enjoyed the matches, but "didn't understand the penalties, high ball and things like that".

The court has raised lines and the players reorientate themselves by going to the goal on the back wall to properly line themselves up in front of their opponents.

"I thought the silence was amazing and it was fascinating the way the athletes felt their way across the court," says Sue Lee, a retired teacher from Chelmsford.


Anna Sharkey

The GB women's team are more experienced than the men and, until half time, are in with a chance of winning. Anna Sharkey receives a nose injury in the second half when the ball whacks her in the face. She's given a towel which she throws back to the team bench at the side of the court. An official moves near to where the towel lands and seconds later is hit by a water bottle Anna assumes will land safely in the same place. The official makes no sound but throws her a sour look. Just as she may never know about this look, the players never fully appreciate how their throwing tactics pay off against the other side.

The women lose seven goals to one and will play Finland on Friday. I'll be attending as it seems the Copper Box might lay on a commentator so I can use that audio description gizmo and enjoy the match a bit more.

Thursday's cycling also had no audio description - a problem repeated across the Olympic Park, and during the Olympics too. My advice to blind spectators is to ask, ask and ask again. Because for blind spectators, as well as goalball athletes, it's all about the sound. If they've purchased a ticket believing they'll get a helpful commentary, they may find it would have been easier and cheaper to listen on the radio.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Very interesting article that reminds us that it doesn't matter whether you're sighted, blind, able bodied or disabled, because all sports are - at least at this level - about tactics.

  • Comment number 2.

    Great article. If my case is anything to go by, the searching for lost drink problem, including the undignified and risk of knocking over elements, may not be related to visual impariment at all.

  • Comment number 3.

    How sad that a key sport for blind participants has no audio description for blind spectators! If there's one sport where that sort of thing needs to be done properly, it's this one! Come on LOCOG/Paralympics Committee or whoever arranges this - sort it out!

  • Comment number 4.

    One of the best pieces I have read, a totally different way of understanding what is being played.

  • Comment number 5.

    We were also watching the morning session yesterday, and all in all I didn't feel the atmosphere was particularly pleasant. The officials seemed to treat the audience as an inconvenience needing chastising at every possible opportunity - it doesn't seem like a great way to encourage interest in the sport.

    ...

  • Comment number 6.

    In the final minute of the Brazil/Finland match, Brazil were highly unsportsmanlike - time-wasting to run down the clock, so the audience booed as the ball was rolled as slowly as possible across the court - causing a no throw to be called due to noise. The ball was given back to Brazil so by the time they had time wasted again the match was over without giving the Finns another chance.
    ...

  • Comment number 7.

    I would have thought there would be rules to prevent what appeared to a layman as cheating, but to penalise Finland who played fairly seems both unfair and contrary to the much vaunted "Olympic spirit". At least the audience booed Brazil after they won in an underhanded fashion, and I hope this discourages them from doing this in the future, and perhaps makes prompts some rule amendments.
    ...

  • Comment number 8.

    I bought tickets to the Goalball as I wanted to watch something different and unique to the Paralympics, however I won't be bothering to watch any more after that experience. Thankfully we were able to use our day tickets to watch the wheelchair basketball, where it felt worthwhile being in the audience, able to support the teams and be part of the experience rather than an unnecessary addition.

  • Comment number 9.

    I would love to have watched the Goalball, but unfortunately Channel 4 are not broadcasting the Goalball whatsoever during the days in which its's on. It's poor, all sports should get equal coverage, including Sailing, Rowing and Archery, other sports getting no live coverage...

  • Comment number 10.

    I took my parents to the Goalball yesterday and was appalled at the lack of audio description. The website said all venues would have it, and I even checked with customer services! My dad was faced with listening to a ball bounce and squeaking trainers. I had to try to describe (whispering) so that it wasn't a complete waste of time. Really upsetting and spoiled what should have been a lovely day.

  • Comment number 11.

    I took my blind 12 year old son to the paralympics to watch goalball. I had checked on the website before visiting and all venues were audio described,... brilliant. Sadly as soon as we had arrived at the Copper Box for the goalball, we were told that there was no audio described commentary. A sport, played and enjoyed by the blind, could not be made accessible for the blind.

 

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