Boccia: A sport for all
On Saturday, the final day of competition at the London ExCel arena, keen boccia player Calum MacDonald has arrived with his mum, dad and older brother, to watch his favourite game played at Paralympic level.
Shortly after entering the venue, the 11 year old from Purley is tickled pink to meet Nigel Murray, a veteran of the sport. Nigel chats at length with Calum, even allowing him to wear the bronze medal he won as part of the GB team earlier in the week.
Immediately afterwards, a certain Paralympics-obsessed blind journalist (me) swooped in to feel said medal and I naturally homed in on its Braille inscription which, for your information, reads: "2012 Paralympic Games".
Similar to bowls, Boccia is played by some of the most physically impaired athletes at the games. It was originally developed for people with cerebral palsy but now anyone with limited use of all four limbs is eligible to compete.
Calum has cerebral palsy. His sporting opportunities were limited, until mum Penny took matters into her own hands and with a bunch of other parents, set up the first young Croydon-based boccia club in the hall of Callum's mainstream primary school. She says that more children than her own son were missing out on physical activity before Monday night became boccia night.
"I knew through Whizz-kidz [the national children's wheelchair charity] that there were a lot of children round about in wheelchairs. We wanted a sport that they could play," says Penny, "and boccia was something that could be set up easily. All you need is a hall, some tape to mark out the court and the boccia balls, which are easy to purchase."
The lesser-known Paralympic sport, which sees wheelchair using athletes throw balls with the aim of getting them as close as possible to the jack, has been hailed as a favourite by Channel 4 newsreader Jon Snow and Mayor of London Boris Johnson, who describe it as being "highly skilled". Agreeing, Callum says that, to be a great boccia player, "You need good accuracy and you need to focus on where the ball should go."
Anyone can play boccia. It has even been included in PE lessons at Callum's mainstream school. In competitive Paralympic boccia, however, there are four classifications: BC1 to BC4. BC1s throw the ball themselves, while BC3s have a sports assistant who places the ball on a ramp, so that the athlete can then direct it towards the target.
Calum throws the ball for himself and judges that, if he made it to a future Paralympic Games, he'd be classified as BC1 or BC2. He appreciates the Paralympic classification system because this way of creating a level playing field is not enforced at the local boccia meets he has attended.
"At competitions, some of the boroughs send able-bodied people to take part. They can lean forward in their chairs and so have an advantage." Calum thinks that anyone should be able to play, but the games should be "wheelchair user against wheelchair user" to make it fair.
Penny, however, doesn't understand why other clubs send players with no physical impairments to the youth games.
"I have asked about this constantly in every year we've entered the competition. Surely each of the London Boroughs must be able to field a team of four that are wheelchair users. I can't believe those children aren't out there."
She hopes the exposure that boccia has gained at the Paralympics will mean that more people will be aware of the sport and get involved.
The London Games have helped Calum realise that boccia is not the only sport he can play. Inspired by Oscar Pistorius and the athletics as a whole, Calum next wants to try his hand at wheelchair racing. So, watch out David Weir!