Paralympics

Paralympic sports go high tech to broaden fan appeal

Kyodo

Efforts are underway to familiarize the public with the rules of Paralympic sports through simulations making use of advanced technology and radio commentary ahead of the 2020 Games.

Those involved in the projects believe the wider exposure could make the sports more fun to watch for the uninitiated and encourage spectators to frequent more venues once they have become used to the different rules and scoring systems.

At an international goalball tournament in September in Chiba Prefecture, a sign went up asking spectators for silence during play. As a rule, spectators of goalball must be quiet during the action so the players can hear the ball and each other, though cheering is allowed when a team scores.

Developed as a rehabilitation activity for soldiers who returned from World War II, goalball involves two teams of three visually impaired players who wear eye masks who try to throw a ball containing bells into the opponent’s goal.

Spectators donned headphones at the Chiba tournament to listen to the on-court comments of the players and view the action on the arena’s screen.

The sound of the ball, the back and forth shouting of the players and even the sound of stomping feet — used as a feint to confuse an opponent — were all picked up by the court microphone.

Some in the audience watching the sport dubbed it the “silent battle” as they viewed the action on large monitors placed in front of the spectators’ seats. Noise coming from different parts of the court can also be visualized instantly on screen, represented by various colored wave effects.

“I thought it would be difficult to get excited being that this is a quiet sport, but I could really see how the ball moved around by listening to the sounds with the headphones,” said Kunitoshi Miyazaki, 47, who watched the game live for the first time. “I felt as if I was a player on the court and really got into it.”

The Paralympic Sports Lab is a consortium of sports associations, advertising agencies and production companies involved in making the Paralympics more accessible and spectator-friendly.

For example, the organization has devised a system to explain the rules of boccia, a precision sport played by athletes with severe physical disabilities. The aim is to throw the leather balls as close as possible to a white target ball, or jack.

A camera filming the court from above uses imagery that can measure the ball positions with remarkable accuracy. The images are displayed on screen in real time, allowing spectators to understand the rules and scoring regime intuitively.

“We want to use technology so people can enjoy the feeling of actually being part of the action,” said Kimihiro Takano, a spokesperson for the organization.

In blind soccer, a variation of futsal designed for blind or visually impaired players, all contestants are blindfolded except for the goalkeepers.

With players relying on the jingling sound made by the ball, each other’s voices and shouts from the goalkeepers, stadium announcements of the rules of play tend to slow the progress.

Originally, FM radio broadcasts for the live commentary were lent to the blind and visually impaired, but the handsets, which include earphones, were well received by spectators viewing blind soccer for the first time.

Now it is not uncommon for more than 100 radios to be lent out at matches to both the visually impaired and the sighted, according to the Japan Blind Football Association.

“There are similarities with futsal, but we have fences on both sides of the pitch, and we have unique rules such as the second penalty kick, so it’s easier for people watching for the first time to understand the game listening to live commentary,” said the association’s Daisuke Miyajima.

“We’d like to keep making efforts that will get more spectators, including those who are disabled, coming out to watch the games.”