The history of boccia can be traced back to Greece in the 6th century BC, where ancient Greeks played a game where they would throw coins, flat stones, and later, stone balls as far as possible. The game was further refined by the ancient Romans, who adapted the game by adding a stone target, which had to be approached as closely as possible.
From this, a number of games emerged: boules, pétanque, and boccia. Boccia was designed specifically for players with cerebral palsy, but has been opened up to include athletes with other disabilities which affect motor skills, also.
Boccia can be played individually, in pairs, or in teams of three, and games are not segregated by gender. Much like lawn bowls, the aim of boccia is to throw balls towards a target ball – the jack – with the aim of getting their ball as close as possible. Each team take a colour of ball, red or blue, to distinguish their leather balls from the other players. At the end of each round, the referee measures the distance of the balls closest to the jack, and awards points to each team. Players will receive one point for each of their balls that are closer to the jack than their opponent’s closest ball. The team with the highest number of points is the winner – if there is a draw, an additional ball will be thrown to decide the winner.
As much as boccia is a physical game, it is a Machiavellian exercise in outwitting your opponent. Much like chess, there are tried and tested strategies to confound and distract opponents. It’s a highly tactical game, where competitors are known to let slip a quiet word of discouragement to their opponent to throw their game off further.
To play boccia at a national or international level, athletes must have a disability and use a wheelchair because of a neurological condition, or one which has similar effects. For athletes who have limited use of their hands or feet a ramp can be used in conjunction with a head pointer on the athlete’s head, which allows them to push the ball from any angle and with varying degrees of speed, allowing for just as complete control over the boccia ball as any other competitor.
The type of disability determines which of the four classes the athlete will play in: BC1 athletes have cerebral palsy and can propel the ball with their feet or hands, and may have an aide on the court to pass them the ball before their shot. BC2 players have cerebral palsy have greater functional ability than athletes in the BC1 class, and can use their hands or feet to propel the ball in play. They are not allowed aides. BC3 athletes can have cerebral palsy or another disability which affects motor function in all four limbs, and are unable to propel the ball in play without an aide and an assistive device, such as a ramp. The aide, however, must keep their back to the court and not look at play, in order to prevent over-assistance. BC4 athletes have disabilities other than cerebral palsy, but one that affects their motor skills in all four limbs in a similar fashion. These athletes are able to throw the ball without an aide, and are not permitted to have one on court.
Boccia was introduced to the Paralympics in the 1984 Summer Games, which were held in both New York and Stoke Mandeville, and was introduced originally for just athletes with cerebral palsy, which it remained until the 2004 Summer Paralympics in Athens, when a new system for categorising athletes’ disabilities was introduced, allowing for boccia players without cerebral palsy to play.
Now practiced in 50 countries worldwide, the Rio Paralympics saw 108 athletes compete in seven medal events. While originally, European nations dominated the medal table, countries like China, South Korea and Thailand are achieving more success in the sport in recent years: Thailand, Japan and Brazil top the boccia team world rankings.
Great British athletes hold two top sports in the world rankings. Stephen McGuire from Bellshill in North Lanarkshire, is world number one in the BC4 individual rankings, where he regularly competes both with and against his brother Peter McGuire – he is the most successful British athlete in the BC4 category. The seven-time Scottish champion and nine-time British champion has been selected to compete in the Paralympics twice.
English athlete David Smith is world number one in the BC1 individual category, and has the distinction of holding four Paralympic medals, two of which are gold. Unbeaten at the annual English Nationals and Great British Championships from 2004 until his retirement from national competition in 2016, David has established a legacy for himself as one of the finest boccia players in British history.
Find our more about boccia at www.boccia.uk.com.
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Words by Katie Campbell of OnTrack Magazine