Some people have called him the Lionel Messi of his sport, but David Smith prefers to style himself as the Ronnie O’Sullivan of boccia. “I like to be creative, I like to put on a show, I like to play well," él dijo, though there is a caveat to the comparison. “I prefer to win, so I get you could put me in that camp but I’m probably unlike Ronnie and more like [Cristiano] Ronaldo in that, if I have to dig it out I will.”
Dig it out he did on Wednesday afternoon as Smith retained his BC1 Paralympic title, coming back from two points down to win the gold-medal match against Malaysia’s Chew Wei Lun 4-2.
Figures will have to be collated, but with the contest shown live on Channel 4, a first for one of his matches Smith believed, it could have been the biggest match in British boccia history.
A relative of bowls and boules and, more closely, bocce, boccia is a sport of precision and tactics. It is also, along with goalball, a sport not replicated in the Olympic programme and offers a platform for athletes with some of the most severe physical impairments to compete at the Games.
“I wouldn’t be a Paralympian without it,” is how Smith, who has cerebral palsy, describes his relationship with the sport. “I can’t swim, or I swim like a brick. I can’t run, I couldn’t throw a club in athletics because I’m in the wrong disability category, So what else is there? What else could I do? I’d be rubbish at goalball, I’d be pretty useless at sitting volleyball as well and the squad can testify that I’m pretty crap at table tennis too.”
To think boccia is a default sport for people who cannot compete elsewhere, sin emabargo, would be wrong. As Smith puts it, he hopes new players take it up, but they should be careful. “You don’t have to be disabled to play boccia," él dijo, “but to be honest the disabled guys would probably kick your arse at the moment.”
Boccia, in Smith’s eyes, is buoyant and the competitive reach of the sport was shown by the strong performance of his opponent. Wei Lun convincingly won the first of four ends with a two-shot sequence that drove Smith’s red ball away from its position close to the jack and then rolled a second blue ball up the other side to claim two points.
It was in this apparently impressive start that Smith spotted a weakness. Wei Lun had a clear opportunity to score a third point with his final throw of the end, but missed it.
“I found a chink in his armour when he was laying up to score the third,"Smith dijo. “So I was like: ‘I’m going to give him more open targets and let him mess his own head up.’ That kind of worked in the second end.”
In that second leg, Wei Lun stymied himself by lining up three of his blue balls in front of the jack. They were asking to be knocked out of the way and Smith duly obliged to claim back a point.
He drew level in the third with a decisive final throw breaking apart a tie where both competitors were touching the jack.
In the fourth and final end, Smith thought he had “made a mess of it” when a third throw knocked out his well-placed second. But then it all turned round. Smith changed his throwing style, from under to overarm. His fourth throw put him back in contention. Entonces, after Wei Lun had sneaked a fraction closer to the jack, Smith threw overarm again and not only displaced his rival’s leading ball but sailed into the gap to the right of the jack to claim a second place too.
Smith roared his delight, Wei Lun could not find the necessary alchemy in his remaining shot and two decisive points went to the Briton with one throw remaining.
As he took to the podium to receive his third Paralympic gold medal, el mundo no 1 was sporting a characteristically eccentric red and blue mohican. But there were also tears in Smith’s eyes. He said he had felt the presence of his deceased grandfather, Charlie, watching over him in the room. “My grandad passed away when I was about 16 and he never really got to see all the things that I became afterwards. Things like driving, I studied to become an aerospace engineer like he was, the boccia and all that sort of stuff. He never saw that.”
Smith said he was “never warmly received” when he had sought employment in the engineering sector after gaining his degree. “So basically I left it, thought: ‘Sod you then,’ and focused on boccia.
“I love engineering, engines, gearboxes, turbos whatever. Aircraft, world war two – all that stuff, I love it. But I’m focused on other things now. It’s their loss in my opinion.”
You would be hard placed to argue otherwise.