diamond geezer

 Thursday, September 06, 2012

I went to the Paralympics again yesterday.
I had a Day Pass for the Olympic Park.
It was a perfect blueskygorgeoustastic day.

Wheelchair Rugby - Australia v Canada
It's not much like rugby. There are no touchdowns, no conversions, no rules about throwing balls backwards. But "murderball" is a marvellously violent game, if you like that sort of thing, which the crowd in the Basketball Arena absolutely did. I don't think many of us knew what to expect, and the court doesn't give much away, just a big rectangle with two flat orange goals at either end. The idea is to enter the goal area carrying the ball, which scores a point, whilst simultaneously trying to thwack the hell out of anyone on the opposing team who tries the same. Think "angry dodgems". Only four of your players are allowed on the pitch at any one time, which you'd think would lead to unsatisfyingly small battles, but no so. Up and down the court they whizz, swirling and charging, evading and ramming, which looks spectacular when everyone's on wheels. Usually on wheels, that is. Occasionally a collision is so strong that the chair topples over, and the occupant has to wait to be righted by a support team with a big mat. This first time that happened we were shocked - the tenth it was all part of the entertainment. All the players have dysfunction in at least three limbs - most are quadriplegic - which makes the display of upper body strength all the more impressive. The Australian team in particular featured two hulking shaven-headed whirlwinds, for whom one imagines this sport is a great release. They did most of the donkey work while the other two (less able, to balance out the team) concentrated on defence. This often meant obstructing, even penning in, members of the Canadian attack so that they couldn't perform for a few crucial seconds. Didn't stop them, though. This was a tight match, and highly scoring, with both teams managing more than fifty goals in the space of 32 in-play minutes. We had a couple of wheel changes on court, indeed both teams have a welder waiting by the subs bench in case of brutal mechanical mishap. The game's great to watch - it makes football look tame and flows much better than its plain rugby counterpart. Whether Great Britain have the talent of these two Commonwealth teams, however, remains in doubt, so don't expect to see prime-time murderball on your TV any time soon.
» Seven photos from the wheelchair rugby

Wheelchair Tennis - Women's singles, Men's singles, Quad Doubles final
It's very much like tennis. Same court, same ball, same singles and doubles tournaments. The sole difference in wheelchair tennis is that the ball is allowed to bounce a second time, which allows the players a few crucial extra seconds to get in place. Other than that, very much the same. And all the more astonishing for it. With two hands to turn your wheels and one to hold the racket, it takes sheer dexterity to be able to reach the right spot and then hit the ball accurately. And they do. Some of these rallies went on far longer than your average able-bodied "ace ace ace" gruntathon, and were much more satisfying to watch too. I got to watch three matches on Centre Court - that's at Eton Manor, up the Leyton end of the Park, and absolutely nowhere near Wimbledon. This is a bespoke Paralympic venue, with nine outdoor courts altogether, which is due to become a hockey and wheelchair tennis centre in legacy. Wednesday was a lovely day to be there, even if it was a bit breezy and chilly in the upper stands. I was sitting near the photographers - those brave folk whose giant lenses bring photos of slightly obscure Paralympic sport to your morning paper. It was a bit nerve-wracking to discover I was "this" close to the Daily Mail's photographer, but thankfully she was kept busy snap-snap-snapping every time a GB player hit the ball. The entire afternoon played out with representatives from only three countries. The women's singles semifinal was an all Dutch affair, with a whitewash for Esther Vergeer. She's a dominating force in wheelchair tennis, so much so that she's won 468 consecutive matches since 2003, with the 469th being the gold medal match later today. Match two was a men's singles quarter final, this time with Briton Gordon Reid facing the Netherlands contingent. He got vocal support from the Union Jack-bedecked supporters in the Paralympic Family stand, but that wasn't enough to prevent a straight sets defeat. Might as well stay for a third match, I thought, and that was three more hours gone. This was the Quad Doubles final, a rather closer affair between the US and Great Britain, maybe because two players on each side meant balls were more rarely missed. America's Nick Taylor used an electric wheelchair because of arm dysfunction, which also meant he had to serve by flicking the ball up with his feet - amazing. When the Victory ceremony came we stood for The Star-Spangled Banner, but thankfully no government minister risked turning up, we got minor royalty instead.
» Seven photos from the wheelchair tennis

Goalball - Women's quarter finals
It's not much like anything else, is goalball. A tiny pitch, where the goal extends the complete length of one side. A sport for the visually impaired, in which every athlete is blindfolded to ensure that levels of invisibility are consistent. And a ball with a bell in it so that players can hear it coming ("silence in the audience, quiet please"). Each team of three takes it in turns to throw the ball (or hurl, or slyly roll, depending). The server has to grasp the crossbar each time to orientate themselves, but even so it's astonishing how they almost always chuck in the right direction. The defending team has to sprawl out lengthways on the floor to try to prevent the approaching ball from entering the goal, and if you guess wrong then in it rolls. It doesn't roll in very often, not when the teams are world class, so for spectators there's a lot of blockage to watch and very little scoring. The Chinese women proved most adept, giving excited squeals whenever applause revealed they'd scored another against the USA. Matches don't last long, only two 12-minute halves, so if you're coming to the Copper Box make sure you don't turn up late. And don't bring a baby, or wear a jester's hat with bells on it, as certain thoughtless folk did yesterday.
» A couple of photos from the goalball

7-a-side Football: The 5-a-side is for the visually impaired, and (so I'm told) impressive. The 7-a-side's just football.

(if you have a Day Pass to the Olympic Park, you might find my readers' tips in Sunday's comments box really useful)

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