What is your role with the Special Olympics bocce programme?
"I’m the chairman of the Special Olympics International Bocce Sports Resource Team, which is a committee of international experts who are passionate about bocce and want to grow the sport. I'm also a member of the Special Olympics International Sports Rules Advisory Council and a fully-fledged volunteer with the Special Olympics Manawatu club in New Zealand, where I'm the head coach of the local bocce team."
How long have you been involved with Special Olympics?
"I’ve been involved with the Special Olympics for 35 years and in bocce for 25 years.
"Our daughter Kylie has an intellectual disability and many years ago the teacher at her primary school asked me, 'would Kylie be interested in getting involved in [Special Olympics] sport?' We went along, I was asked if I wanted to help, and I've been involved ever since."
What is it about bocce that makes you so passionate about it?
"It’s the fact that unlike a lot of other sports where you have to be a certain size or shape, bocce is a sport for all. Whether you are 5'3" or 7'2", in a wheelchair or using callipers, you can play. There’s no domination by strength or size. It’s not a sport that involves physical contact so you don’t have to worry about crashing into people. And there are no barriers to age."
How many people play bocce as part of Special Olympics programmes in New Zealand, where you are based?
"There are around 600 bocce players in New Zealand."
How fast has bocce grown in the New Zealand Special Olympics community?
"The number of New Zealand athletes playing bocce increased by 43 per cent between 2017 and 2018, and the sport is now offered by 27 out of the 44 Special Olympics New Zealand clubs."
How many people play bocce internationally as part of Special Olympics programmes?
"Every year Special Olympics does an international survey of how many train and compete. In 2018 there were 440,887 people playing bocce in Special Olympics programmes around the world - that's more than double the number of people who were playing in 2011.
"In Asia-Pacific, where I’m based, there are 255,746 players in Special Olympics programmes and it is the second most popular sport after athletics. I take a bit of pride in the fact that bocce is so popular in Asia-Pacific. I’ve been intimately involved since 1995, when I coached the Special Olympics New Zealand bocce team at the Special Olympics World Games in Connecticut, USA."
Does that make bocce one of the biggest growth sports for Special Olympics globally?
"Bocce is growing faster than other sports. People are starting to wake up to the fact that bocce is a sport for all and a lot of people are playing it as an alternative or complementary sport.
"When we removed indoor bowls from our program in New Zealand because it lacked an international pathway for Special Olympics athletes, a lot of the athletes took up bocce because it was similar. Here in New Zealand we have clubs who play bocce indoors, as well as outdoors. People who play indoor bowls make great bocce players."
When it comes to total participation numbers, how does bocce compare to other Special Olympics sports globally?
"Bocce is the fourth most popular sport in the Special Olympics programme, behind football, athletics and basketball."
Which country has the largest number of bocce players in its Special Olympics programme?
"India has the largest population of bocce players. It’s an easy sport to play because you can play it anywhere."
Which countries have the best Special Olympics bocce programmes internationally?
"I look at countries that have a good sport culture, a good system, and good resources, as well as passionate people. I think Special Olympics Ireland is doing it really well, along with the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
"In the early days I formed a really good relationship with Roy Savage who was behind starting bocce in Ireland’s Special Olympics programme in 2003. He loved lawn bowls but saw the benefits of bocce, and it has gone from strength to strength.”
How many people participated in bocce at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi?
"There were 284 athletes from 172 countries competing in bocce across the singles, doubles and unified bocce competitions.
"It’s very important that we have that international pathway for athletes. Most people when they get into sport want to put on their country’s jersey and Special Olympics athletes are no different. Young Special Olympics athletes are no different from mainstream kids, they want to be the Tiger Woods of the world."
Why is promoting unified sport important to Special Olympics?
"Unified sports within the Special Olympics world has been a particular vision of Special Olympics Chair Timothy Shriver. It’s really about doing reverse mainstreaming. The concept is to get people interacting with other people who have an intellectual disability, on the sports field or bocce court, as an equal. In many cases the Special Olympics athlete is actually better at the sport than their unified partner."
What makes bocce better than other sports when it comes to providing a platform for unified sports?
"All team sports in the Special Olympics can be played with a unified partner, but in bocce there is less likelihood of player domination. In football or basketball you might find unified team members playing amongst themselves rather than passing to their team mates, but in bocce both players have an equal role – there should be no player dominance by the unified partner."
In New Zealand, where you are from, many clubs have decided to focus on bocce rather than indoor bowls in recent years. Why is that?
"Special Olympics New Zealand identified that there was no international pathway for indoor bowlers. Indoor bowls had the status of a ‘locally popular sport’, but the lack of international pathway meant young athletes couldn’t aspire to international competition or take that next step if they wanted to.
"We did have people in indoor bowls who were passionate about it and didn’t want to give it up, but we explained to them that there was no international pathway for the athletes and most of them got it. Making that transition involved talking to the players and coaches, identifying regions that wanted to change from indoor bowls to bocce immediately. The message that we told them was the ‘why’ – why bocce made sense for their athletes and why they should offer it instead."
Are most Special Olympics clubs around the world playing bocce as part of their programmes?
"Many are but there are some regions where bocce is not played at all. It’s really sad. When I look at Africa, bocce doesn’t appear anywhere in the top five Special Olympics sports ... there isn’t the infrastructure there in terms of coaching and resources."
Why do you think some clubs haven’t yet introduced it as part of their programmes?
"Resources is the big one – equipment and manpower. Officials are important too. You might have the equipment and coaches, but if you don’t have officials who know the rules, people at your competitions get frustrated or give up."
How do you think bocce can continue to grow?
"At the moment the sport is growing just through the passion of individuals. If there was more co-operation between countries, and internationally, the playing numbers would go through the roof!"
What is your dream or vision for Special Olympics bocce internationally?
"My ultimate dream would be that every athlete around the world has an opportunity to play the sport at whatever level they want. The barriers are removed and everyone can play."
Lastly, how are your own bocce skills?
"When I play bocce these days I’m often playing as a unified partner alongside my son Conrad, who has an intellectual disability. If I was to rate my playing ability out of 10, I’d say I was a seven."