Greek Paralympics goalball and boccia teams determined to win

The words goalball and boccia may be unfamiliar right now, but very soon they will be included in our daily vernacular as they refer to sports played exclusively in the Paralympic Games, taking place from this Friday to September 27. These sports require a great deal of skill, precision, concentration and, needless to say, many long hours of practice. Greek participation in these two events is, in comparison to that of other countries, inexperienced – as both sports are very new to the country – though the athletes participating promise to give their very best to win a position on the podium. Goalball Goalball is a riveting team sport played only by blind or visually impaired athletes. Each team is composed of six players – three main players and three substitutes. The aim of the game is to score a goal against the opponent by rolling a ball by hand into the post, while the opponents are allowed to block a play with any part of their bodies. Each game lasts for two 10-minute periods, while the winning team is determined by who scores the most goals. In order to ensure the teams are on equal footing – considering that players have varying degrees of sight – all players are required to wear a blindfold. They detect the ball by ear (it has a bell attached) and are therefore forbidden from speaking or shouting when making a play. The court’s lines are marked in relief so that the athletes can be aware of their position at all times. «When one’s vision is limited, all the other senses – hearing and touch, especially – are very acute,» explains the captain of the Greek national women’s goalball team, Melpomeni Kessanopoulou. «The most important factor is concentration, so that you can pick out the sounds of the players’ movements. Players are permitted to talk to one another only the moment before they shoot and, as you can imagine, spectators have to be absolutely silent.» The game, explains the athlete, moves at a very quick pace, «so we need to be in top physical condition, we need to be strong and we need to have ‘explosive’ reflexes.» According to the expansive Athens 2004 website, goalball was first introduced in Greece in Thessaloniki in 2001. The men’s and women’s national squads have very little experience playing abroad: The first official entry of a Greek team abroad was in December 2002 with the men’s and women’s teams of the Hephaestos Club at Madrid’s International Invitational Tournament. For the past few months, however, the men and women athletes who will be representing Greece in these Games have been going through a grueling practice program. «We train daily for up to six hours, until, that is, we are completely exhausted,» explains Kessanopoulou. «You must understand that our participation is a great feat in itself. Until recently, even the Panhellenic Championship was seen more as entertainment than as a sports challenge. We are determined nevertheless to give our all to winning.» The goalball competitions will be held in the Sports Pavilion at the Faliron Coastal Zone Olympics Complex from September 20-26. Boccia Boccia, an individual game played by individuals, partners or teams of three is a sport for people with cerebral palsy or other locomotive disabilities who use wheelchairs. The aim of the game is to toss, kick or otherwise propel (using a helping device in the case of athletes with severe disabilities) either the red or blue (depending on the side) ball closest to the white ball, called the jack. Individual players or teams each get a turn to pitch, after which the referee measures the distance of the balls from the jack and, awarding points accordingly, tallies up the score at the end to declare a winner. The athletes are separated into four categories depending on their functioning ability; the four Greek athletes representing the national squad participate in three of the four categories. While the game may sound simple enough to the layman, it is a very challenging sport, explains the Greek national boccia squad coach, Giorgos Tzimas. «We are asking for an enormous amount of control and skill in movement from people who have very little control over their bodies. Therefore, they really have to outdo themselves.» The history of boccia in Greece is also a brief one. «Boccia was first introduced to Greece in 1996 at the school level, by the Ilion Special Junior High and High School. The first national-level competition was held two years later and since 2000 it has been annual event,» explains the coach. «For the past three months, we have been training two, three hours a day – a lot considering that the athletes, due to their disabilities, quickly become tired. It is very important for us to have the public come and see us play boccia and to support our efforts,» says Tzimas. «It is also important for spectators to read up on the rules beforehand, so that they can really enjoy the game.» The boccia competitions will be held at the Ano Liosia Olympic Hall from September 23-28.

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