David Smith

The first World Cup of the 2022 boccia season gets underway next week in Rio de Janeiro. And although the European Championships last November was the official opener of the new Paris 2024 cycle, it felt rather tied onto the back of the Paralympics.

So it really does feel as if we are kicking off the 2024 cycle in Brazil and it will be the first tournament where we’ll be playing under the new licensed ball regulations. The Boccia International Sports Federation (BISFed) has introduced ball-licencing for international competition to ensure fairness. It’s been an expensive exercise for boccia players and we’ve had to spend time adjusting to the new balls but that’s all gone quite well for us at Boccia UK. 

Each ball in boccia has a different weight and consistency. Some are used to roll up and lodge against another ball. Others are used to smash an opponent’s ball out of the way while some shots require a ball to land on the top of a crowded scoring head. You tend to trust certain balls in your set for certain jobs but the new regulations have forced us to be more experimental.  

The Rio World Cup isn’t a crucial tournament for me in terms of ranking or qualification points or anything like that. Obviously if I win, then happy days, but if I don’t, I’ll just make sure I take the learning through to the next tournament. But training’s going well and I feel that I’m on good form.

I always enjoy tournament week - in the individuals, I like to push boundaries and I like getting some good games in against players I know well on the circuit. 

But, if I’m being completely honest, my ambitions for Paris really lie in the team event. This is a team of three players from the BC1 and BC2 categories. Of course, I love winning and I have a job to do in the individuals but I’d be so excited to win a team medal. 

I did it in Beijing 2008 when we won gold and then in London 2012, we won bronze. That was with former team-mates Nigel Murray, Daniel Bentley and Zoe Robinson. 

David Smith won an individual gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics ©Getty Images
David Smith won an individual gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics ©Getty Images

Currently, the line-up is myself, world number two Claire Taggart and Will Hipwell. Unfortunately, Will is unable to compete in Rio due to work commitments but we’ll be joined by Reshad Saraj. He’s a player that’s been on the domestic circuit for a long time but this will be his first international tournament.

It’s good to see some upward pressure from the boccia pathway. He has a slightly different style of playing so that’s exciting. Robyn McBride is another new face in the team. She is a BC3 player so she plays with a ramp and ramp assistant and we’re looking forward to seeing her make her debut in Brazil. 

The World Cup event will be held in the same arena as that of the 2016 Paralympics. It’s always good to return to a venue and see how things have developed and whether or not the infrastructure around it has developed to civilian life. Nobody wants to see an Olympic or Paralympic white-elephant venue so it’ll be interesting to see how Rio has managed it. 

In December, Rio plays host to the World Championships so you could say this is a test event, making sure the logistics and the transport are all working as they should. I’m sure the organisers will be looking, post-COVID, as to how they might be able to get spectators in. 

The last World Championships was in Liverpool 2018 and the organisers took it to another level in terms of making the event spectator-friendly. They set the benchmark really high but it will be good to see what Rio might emulate or whether they introduce some fresh ideas. 

The other change which will be interesting to see play out is the separation of the male and female individual events which was recently introduced. I think it’s been a good move by BISFed because there are more medal opportunities and it helps to reward and recognise the hard work from players. Particularly on the female side, we’re seeing new faces on the podium and it’s opening things up in the male classes too.  

The Boccia International Sports Federation recently introduced ball-licencing regulations for international competition to ensure fairness ©Getty Images
The Boccia International Sports Federation recently introduced ball-licencing regulations for international competition to ensure fairness ©Getty Images

As rules and formats evolve, the sport’s also getting tougher with squads becoming increasingly professional. Tokyo was tough and the standard of play at the European Championships was equally as high. 

It will only continue going in that direction because the splitting of the male and female classes means the competition schedules will be much more manageable and there is more time between games for recovery. In my category, the BC1s, you used to get 20 players but now we’ll have about 12 to 16. There will be fewer games but they’ll be sharper and more intense. 

The great thing about boccia currently is that no nation is massively ahead. If you look at the medallists from Tokyo, there’s a big mix right across the world including Slovakia, Thailand, Brazil, South Korea, China, Portugal and Greece. And of course I’d put Britain on that list too.  

It is a sport that is growing quickly. New players are coming through and we’re expecting different nations to introduce some new faces in Rio. In the last couple of years, there’s been little competition due to COVID but you can bet there’s been plenty of hard training.