After 5-a-side football last weekend, our Parapan Am experience concluded with the bronze and gold medal matches of goalball yesterday. We knew nothing about this sport except that it has a boring name, and so we had no real idea what to expect. I looked it up on Wikipedia to see the rules but never thought to search Youtube for video, or even watch Parapan Am matches on TV. It’s a sort of handball for blind athletes, but without the end-to-end action – the players don’t move around much and spend most of the game lying down. Similar to the 5-a-side football, the players are visually impaired to varying degrees and so all of them wear blindfolds. Unlike the football, there’s nobody on the floor who can see.
The floor is smaller than a standard hockey rink (60′ x 30′) and is divided into 6 sections that span the width of the floor. The sections closest to the nets are the team areas, the next is the landing zone, and the middle two are the neutral zone. The sections are separated by twine that’s taped to the floor with black tape (so the players can feel them and the refs can see them), and the out-of-bounds lines are all have twine and tape as well. In addition, the team areas have shorter lines with twine as well, so the players can orient themselves within the box. The goal also spans the width of the floor and is about 5 feet high. The ball is about the size of a basketball and has a bell in it, though it was much harder to hear than the football one (which had multiple bells).
Each team has 3 players on the floor, all of whom act as goaltenders when they’re playing defensively. One player on the team will throw or roll the ball towards the other side, and the ball must bounce in his own landing zone and the neutral zone (if it doesn’t, that’s a penalty shot for the other team). The players on the other team listen for the ball and attempt to stop it by lying on their side and stretching out their arms and legs as far as possible. Whether or not they stop the ball, they have ten seconds to throw it back.
While certainly entertaining, it wasn’t the most exciting or action-packed sport I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t like football where the teams were interacting or running from one end to the other – it was much more individual than that. Team A takes a shot on team B, then B shoots on A, and it keeps going back and forth. There were a few penalty shots where a single player must defend the entire net. This usually leads to a goal since he has to wait until he hears where the ball is going and usually doesn’t have time to get to it – but the shooter doesn’t always shoot in the right direction so we saw some saves and a penalty shot or two miss the net entirely.
We did figure out a couple of strategies: Rolling it makes it harder to hear and easier to hit the required sections of floor, but also easier to stop. Throwing it so that it bounces makes it harder to defend since it can bounce over you, but it’s also harder to hit the landing and neutral zones and the bounces make it louder. Considering none of the players can see, much of the play seemed rather random since the shooter really has no idea where to shoot. That being said, both of the games we saw were one-sided (you are less likely to get one-sided games if everything’s random) and it was obvious who the really good players were. For example, despite getting beaten 13-3, #4 on Argentina was really good at anticipating where the ball was going, and even when it was going to bounce. He stopped a couple from bouncing over him purely by positioning himself properly – not just lying down and hoping it would hit him, but moving forward or back so he was in the right place when it bounced. While the cameraman next to the net got hit by rolling balls a couple of times, we saw very few balls thrown wild – many went out of bounds, but usually not by much. This is even more impressive when you realize that many players spun 360° before shooting to translate that momentum into more speed. If that spin is off by just a few degrees, you’re throwing the ball into the crowd. That never happened.
Like I said, it looks random, but I think it basically comes down to people that are really good at something difficult making it look easy.
We saw two games. The bronze medal game was Canada vs. Argentina, and Canada won handily, 13-3. There’s a mercy rule in goalball, so once Canada took a 10-goal lead, the game was over. There were only about 2 minutes left in the game anyway (they play two halves of 12 minutes each).
The second game was the gold medal game between the US and Brazil. That looked like it was going to end up the same way, as Brazil led 8-2 at the half. The US stepped up defensively in the second half and only allowed 2 more goals, but they could only score two themselves and lost 10-4. This game featured far fewer balls thrown out of bounds than the first one and some excellent goaltending from the Brazilians.