The ball game, which can be played by the severely disabled, first appeared at the Games in 1984 and is growing fast
Nigel Murray of Great Britain throws a Boccia ball during a match against Ireland. Photograph: Jamie McDonald/Getty Images.
It is a sport many have never heard of, but it’s one that offers a lifeline for those who can find a club.
Boccia – pronounced bot-cha – was designed to enable severely disabled athletes to participate in sport and has become one of the fastest-growing Paralympian activities.
“We’ve seen a definite boom since the London Paralympics,” said Marc Scott, club development officer with Boccia England. “But it’s not well known across the general public. If you go up to somebody on the street and asked them what boccia is, they wouldn’t have a clue.”
First played at the 1984 Paralympics, the sport now boasts 61 clubs affiliated to Boccia England, up from 40 in 2012. But its profile suffers because it is the only sport for which there is no Olympic equivalent, and its players do not enjoy the recognition of some Paralympians. But before next month’s Paralympics – to which Team GB will be sending a full quota of 10 b boccia players – and before national boccia day on 17 September, there are calls for the game’s profile to be raised so that more severely disabled people can play.
In boccia, players must propel balls as close as possible to the jack on a court measuring 12.5 metres by six. If a player is unable to throw or kick the ball, they can use a ramp. Those unable to release the ball with their hands use a device that they can point with their head.
“As with all sports there is a cost, but with disability sports the cost increases,” Scott said. “There is specialist equipment, there are few manufacturers, and the cost is high. Access to starting up and playing boccia is significantly more than, say, if you want to set your child up to play at a local football club.”
A decent set of balls costs £300, while a ramp can set a player back as much as £3,000. This can be well beyond the reach of many people with severe disabilities.
“We’re talking about people who are quadriplegics or have cerebral palsy who are based in powerchairs,” Scott said. “Boccia is the only sport they can play. It’s the only one that allows participants across the globe to take part in a sport.”
Former England rugby international Alastair Hignell, a trustee of the Leonard Cheshire Disability charity, which campaigns on disability issues, agreed: “The Paralympic Games will no doubt trigger much debate about how disabled people engage with sport. A disability is something you can be born with or acquire later in life. Boccia can be played by anyone, including those with conditions limiting mobility or exertion, yet all too often it is not made available by local sports providers.”
A YouGov poll suggests that 61% of disabled people would like to do more sport or exercise. But earlier research found that 41% of disabled people said there were no opportunities for them to participate.
“The benefits of sport to disabled people – including the benefits to mental health and a full social life – are the same as for everyone else,” Hignell said.