Goalball gives visually impaired athletes a chance to show off their sporting prowess. Kate Ginn checks out the action.
The action on court is fast and furious. A ball is whizzing around as players attempt to shoot or defend another attack at a pace that makes it hard for the eye to keep up. It’s end-to-end stuff and makes for an exciting spectator sport.
What you might not be aware of immediately while watching is that every one of the players is visually impaired, in some cases with a total loss of vision.
Welcome to Goalball. It’s growing in popularity here in Oman, with players from Muscat to Nizwa and Sohar out to prove that people with disabilities are just as capable of playing sport as able-bodied athletes.
Exactly how good they are was on show during a friendly Goalball tournament last weekend in Muscat, the first of its kind ever held in the Sultanate. Around 36 blind athletes were taking part in six teams.
Goalball, a team sport, was specifically designed for blind athletes and has a fascinating history. It was developed in 1946, originally as a way of rehabilitating visually impaired World War II veterans, before evolving into a competitive sport and being accepted into the 1980 Summer Paralympics in Arnhem (in the Netherlands), becoming the first Paralympic sport designed exclusively for disabled players.
The game is played with a ball, which has bells inside. Teams roll or throw the ball from one end to the other to try to “score” a goal. Players must use the sound of the bell to judge the position and movement of the ball. Coaches also shout out instructions and team members can communicate with each other when they don’t have the ball.
In games, players who are partially sighted wear eyeshades to compete on an equal footing with blind players.
On court at the Al Amal Club in Muscat, the sound of bells echo off the walls as the ball (which weights 1.25kg) is thrown with some force from one end to the other. Muscat “A” team is playing Sohar University and while it might be a friendly, the desire to win is clear. There’s no holding back from the three players on each team as the sweat glistens on their foreheads. When a goal is scored and a cheer from the crowd rises up, the joy on their faces is proof of how much it means to them.
“This is good experience for the players,” says Hussain al Haddad, a Goalball expert from Qatar who has been drafted in to help with the friendly Oman Goalball Open.
“Our aim is to do this every month and during tournaments, they will be training with a coach. The next step is the national team. We hope some of the players here will go on to play for Oman.”
Yes, Oman does have a national Goalball team, although you might not be aware of it. Our men’s national team (there isn’t a women’s team) was ranked 38th in the world in 2015.
I’m told by the one of the players that Poland is one of the best teams in the world, along with Iraq and Turkey.
Khamis al Sharji proudly says “yes” when asked if he plays for the Oman national team. The 26-year-old student at Sultan Qaboos University has been blind from birth and discovered Goalball around seven years ago.
“I like it because it gives me power,” says Khamis, who uses Braille (a tactile reading and writing system for the visually impaired) to study his subjects of mass communication and public relations.
“My big dream is to go to the Olympics and win a medal for Oman.
“No one has ever treated me differently because I am blind. I get around in taxis or with my cane, and at weekends I’m with my family.
“I also go horse riding and love it.”
Watching the action unfold on court is Humaid al Harthy, the only qualified Goalball coach in Oman, who travelled to China to train and become certified.
“Both my brother and nephew are blind, which is why I got involved,” says Humaid, who, like everyone at the tournament, volunteers his time for free and has a full-time job as a public relations officer.
“I enjoy teaching and helping out. You can see how happy it makes blind people to play the game.”
Ishaq al Baushi, 22, is a case in point, and talks about how much he loves playing and being part of a team.
“My aim was to play football for the national Oman football team but I started losing my sight from when I was 12.
“This [Goalball] is something that I can do for my country.”
The game in Oman needs more funding to help cultivate players good enough to play for the national team, says Dr Mansoor al Tauqi, president of the Oman Paralympic Committee.
“There are some athletes here who would like to compete in the Olympic Games. Like anybody else, they have dreams and we want them to get their dreams.
“But we cannot do it until we get some financial and community support.”
The only aid comes from the Ministry of Sports Affairs. Next year, the Paralympic Committee plans to launch blind football.
“With Goalball, it’s about giving the athletes a sense of space and much more control of their body and that, of course, will transform into real life; they will be much more controlled themselves, the way they move, their self-esteem and their stamina,” says al Tauqi.
“The impact of their participation in sport is big. It improves the whole life of a disabled person.”