Goalball’s silent mission to win over the media

PHILIP BARKER visits the first Paralympic sport to test out the facilities in London’s Olympic Park

This weekend, goalball becomes the first Paralympic sport to be tested in the Olympic Park.

But will it receive the coverage it deserves come Games time? LOCOG’s Paralympic sports chief Chris Holmes was insistent yesterday that the Games will not be overshadowed by one runner, Oscar Pistorius.

“There is a potential to get a huge breadth of coverage across a wide range of sports,” Holmes said. “Oscar will get a lot of coverage, a lot of focus, but there are 20 sports in the Games, there will be thousands of press and broadcasters at the Games, there is space for every sport to have its rightful moment in the sun.’’

Ring any bells? Goalball is played in total silence

Holmes is unconcerned by the prospect of Channel 4 being the UK rights-holding broadcasters of the Paralympics, despite the criticism they received during the athletics world championships, when they used presenters untried in sport, and with no apparent live TV experience.

“They’ve got a talent plan in place that they will be announcing next year, crucially they will be keen to put sport at the heart of it with top flight serious sports broadcasters anchoring their coverage,” Holmes said.

Channel 4 beat the BBC for the rights, offering 150 hours of coverage. “The reason Channel 4 just edged across the line was not just their commitment at Games time but that sense of wanting to cover it from the time they signed the deal with some great programming focusing on the sport,” said Holmes.

Not for the first time, the BBC has felt a sense of injustice over a sports body which it has helped to develop coverage, then taking the rights to another channel. Holmes seemed unaware of this when he said, “It is extraordinary how far the Games have come. When I went to the Seoul Paralympics in 1988 I could not have imagined that now we would have all the top UK broadcasters vying for those Paralympic domestic broadcast rights.”

Yet even the BBC’s extensive archive of sport will have little goalball coverage, especially when seeking any soundtracks. Goalball is a sport played in total silence.

Visually impaired teams of three play a game of two 12-minute halves on an indoor court (the size of a volleyball court), using a rubber ball with bells inside, and attempt to score by rolling it into the opposition goal.

To enable the players to hear the ball, silence is therefore golden.

The announcement in the venue is made before each session of play: “Spectators are kindly asked to remain silent during play. When a goal is scored, spectators are welcome to cheer and make a noise.”

Holmes said, “The silence is as powerful, as engaging as a roaring crowd for someone coming down the back straight in athletics.

“If you imagine tennis, the silence during play is completely part of the sports presentation. It is palpable isn’t it? Everyone is joined together by it. It will make a phenomenal atmosphere.”

A team from the United States, the defending Paralympic women’s champions, are joined for the London test event this weekend by China, the world champions, Canada, Sweden and Great Britain.

“It is a massive step up for me,” said Amy Otterway, of the British team. “There will be definitely be an increase in media. We are ready to grab the opportunity to spread the word. It is a different challenge and it is one we are ready to take on.”