The Most Interesting Sport We’ve Never Heard Of 

By Kay Starr

Bulletin readers may be familiar with the Paralympics, an international athletic competition for athletes with disabilities. The Paralympics are held immediately after the Olympic Games. The Summer Games consist of 20 sports for disabled athletes. Ten of these sports are open to visually impaired athletes. One of those sports, Goalball, is also one of the oldest.

Goalball was developed in 1946 by Hanz Lorenzen of Austria and Sepp Reindle of Germany to aid in the rehabilitation of World War II veterans blinded in combat. It is the first sport specifically developed for the blind and visually impaired although other sports such as bowling and golf have also been adapted.

The rules of Goalball are simple: Two teams of three compete to throw a ball equipped with bells into the goal of the opposing team. The play area is marked with tactile tape so that players can feel the lines as they cross them. The goal itself is nine meters wide and sits at the back of each team’s area. When playing Goalball, all players must wear eyeshades to ensure that they are operating on the same level since the game is open to both blind and visually impaired athletes.

Unlike crowds at other sports competitions, Goalball spectators must remain silent so that players can focus on the jingle-bell sound of the ball. When players hear the ball coming, they dive at it in an attempt to block it from rolling across the goal line. Players try to roll the ball as quietly as possible, with minimal bouncing, in order to keep the opposing team from being able to hear and block it. Games consist of two ten-minute halves. Players are aggressive to the point of injuring themselves, an example of which is the commonly broken fingers that occur.

The game grew in popularity from a rehabilitation activity to a sport in its own right. Goalball is most popular in the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Germany, and Australia but is growing in popularity around the world. Currently, Goalball is played in 100 countries, making it one of the most popular of all Paralympic sports. Correspondingly, it is one of the most contested sports at the Paralympics with more than 70 countries competing in the tournament.

Goalball first debuted as a demonstration event at the 1976 Summer Paralympics and the first world championship of Goalball was held in its native Austria in 1978. In 1980, it became an official event at the Paralympics in Arnhem, Netherlands, and has been a Summer Paralympics event ever since. International competition of Goalball is governed by the International Blind Sports Federation, which was established in 1981 in response to the growing interest worldwide in sports for the visually impaired.

At the most recent Summer Paralympic games in Beijing, China earned the Gold medal in the Men’s event. The United States lost to Sweden in the Bronze medal match. On the women’s side, the United States went all the way in winning the Gold medal.

In the Goalball World Championships held in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England, in late June, China avenged its defeat in the Paralympics by upending the U.S. women 3-1 to take the Gold medal. The U.S. men faced off against Iran in the Bronze medal game, losing 5-3.

Goalball has also been featured as an event at several sports clinics attended by BVA members, including a session put on by the United States Association of Blind Athletes for our Operation Peer Support participants at the BVA Phoenix convention two years ago. Currently, there are well-established Goalball programs across the country, from New Jersey to Florida and from San Francisco to New York. New teams are being formed all the time.

To learn more about Goalball in the United States, visit the U.S. National Goalball team’s website, www.goalball.us.