Ahead of the boccia championship in Dubai, athlete Sachin Chamaria sheds light on lesser-known Paralympic sport
The courtyard is silent as Sachin Chamaria watches a peculiar white ball – the jack – resting in front of him. The 30-year-old paraplegic wheelchair athlete studies the distance and angle of the ball before sliding his red ball down a ramp. He turns around and stops right next to the jack.
It is the game of boccia (pronounced baw-cha), a Paralympic sport that has been slowly gaining popularity in India since 2017. Played specifically by wheelchair athletes, the purpose of the sport is to bring your balls as close as possible from the jack. Along with goalball, boccia is one of only two sports that does not have an Olympic equivalent.
None of this, Sachin knew until March 2021, when his physiotherapist introduced him to Jaspreet Singh Dhaliwal, founder of the Para Boccia Sports Welfare Society, India’s governing body for boccia.
It was barely a week later that the Delhi athlete entered the fifth national boccia championship in Visakhapatnam. And yet, to his good surprise, he ended up winning the gold medal in the BC3 category, beating 15 other players, some of them seasoned. Seven months after starting the sport, he got down to it and how – he will now represent India at the 2021 Asia-Oceania Fazza Dubai Regional Boccia World Championships in November.
“Boccia is as much a game of strategy as it is of skill,” explains Sachin, who also enjoys playing chess. “You have to choose a strategy for each shot. You need to choose the type of ball to play, the height and angle from which to throw it – there are hard balls and soft balls; and if you put a soft ball near the jack, it will not be easily moved by another ball because it will absorb the pressure and will not roll too far, for example. All of that you have to strategize and do it in six minutes, ”he says.
Before a road accident left Sachin quadriplegic at the age of 17, he was a national taekwondo champion, representing India at international events. He now trades shares under his company Growealth Capital, but his dream of being an international athlete is still alive.
In 2015 and 2016, he played sports such as club throwing and discus throwing. “But after a year and a half of training, I realized I couldn’t make it to the Paralympics that way,” he admits.
Now with the boccia he has a good chance; a victory at the Dubai championship will open the doors to the World Boccia Open Tournament in Brazil, which will pave the way for the Para-Asian Games in China, which will help him qualify for the 2024 Paralympic Games.
He will be accompanied in Dubai by three other players, including athlete Ajeya Raj from Jharkhand for whom it will be known terrain. The contingent were selected during a seven-day national camp in Solan, Himachal Pradesh, where they practiced in a special court established at the Indian Association of Muscular Dystrophy Center.
There are currently around 60 to 70 boccia players, but Sachin estimates there could have been over 100 if the pandemic hadn’t slowed things down. “Yet,” he says, “in India there are hardly any dedicated boccia grounds, there is one in Solan and the other in Bengaluru.”
A call for support
To train in Dubai, Sachin received help from a Delhi school in Punjabi Bagh, which opened its premises for the construction of a boccia field.
Equipment such as ramps, balls, hand pointers, head pointers (tools for holding the ball, needed by people with disabilities) are also quite expensive and not readily available, he says. The ramp alone costs up to three lakh rupees. “I am able to play the game because I was fortunate enough to be born into a family that can afford the cost of the sport. What about people from low income groups, will they pay their medical bills or buy equipment? He asks, stressing the need for infrastructure and government support.
India currently participates in nine of the 22 Paralympic sports, yet they have had a good run this year, winning 19 medals in total. “Since boccia has four categories individually or as a team, training boccia players gives us the chance to bring home 48 medals,” he said.
So far, Sachin’s dream is singular: to represent India at the Paralympic Games, and Dubai is his first stop on this journey.