The Boccia International Sports Federation (BISFed) has said it is going ahead with plans to introduce a ball-licencing process for international competition despite a petition protesting against the decision that has so far been signed by more than 2,000 boccia players or followers.
BISFed says the licensing initiative, which was first aired in 2016, has been prompted by the need to ensure fairness in international competition in the face of a wide range of practices designed to gain advantage by manipulating the design of the balls used.
The petition, started on Facebook, contends that the cost of buying mandatory sets of balls could mean teams reducing their numbers and would widen a gap between rich and poor federations.
"The fact that all balls ever made will be illegal in International World competition from 1st January 2022 forces every athlete who competes or aspires to compete internationally to instantly begin purchasing a new set," it says.
The petition contends that a competitive set of ball costs between $230 (£165/€190) and $850 (£615/€710), and that multiplying that cost for a team of 10 athletes would represent a "considerable investment" for a country with limited funding.
It adds that the proposed changes will not counter the issue of cheating that has been identified, claiming: "Athletes will still be able to manipulate balls after purchase to make them significantly different to what is commercially available."
At the time of writing there were 2,094 signatures on the petition, which is seeking a total of 2,500 as a significant marker to gain media attention.
But in an update, BISFed President Dave Hadfield said: "We are aware that a group of athletes has raised a petition on Facebook which seeks to reverse the decision taken by the BISFed Board.
"We are also aware that other athletes are strongly in favour of this decision.
"Your Board met last week to discuss the situation in detail and has confirmed that the Ball Licencing process will proceed as the next step in making sanctioned international boccia fairer."
In explaining the Board’s position, Hadfield added: "Since BISFed took on governance of boccia in 2013, we have worked hard to create an environment which allows fair play in international competition.
"We have often been approached by athletes and coaches who complain about the regulation of boccia balls and the widespread practices of ball manipulation and tampering.
"Many also complain that it is unfair that some athletes have access to boccia balls which are not available on the open market to anyone else.
"We are aware of other irregularities such as the ordering of boccia balls to be manufactured with a circumference greater than the Boccia Rules allow.
"We have already taken several steps to create fairer competition (for example by outlawing the addition of sticky substances to balls and introducing the Roll Test to eliminate super soft balls.)
"However, players’ imagination to bypass the Rules seems to have no limits.
"We now see athletes competing with solid wood or plastic balls and some balls have magnets inside to make them almost impossible to dislodge…
"Your Board has taken the position that as the International Governing Body for boccia, we cannot condone or allow a situation to continue whereby it is so easy to gain an unfair advantage.
"In many ways tampering with balls is as unethical as doping."
Hadfield stressed that the intention is to ensure that boccia balls for international competition "are available in an open market to all athletes on equal terms and at reasonable prices (we expect that the price range of Licenced balls will be equivalent to current prices.)"
Hadfield said that a broad group of eight manufacturers have been offered a licence, who will all have to pay BISFed a licence fee.
"It is important to note," he added, "that this is not primarily an exercise to raise funds for your Governing Body (as has been suggested by some); if that were the case, presumably the Licence Fee would have been set at a significantly higher level and we could have issued more licences.
Hadfield concluded: "BISFed’s priority has been, above all, to promote an environment of fairness in which the athlete’s skill, rather than the ability to manipulate sporting equipment, is the defining factor in achieving success.
"It is important to note that Ball Licencing applies only to international sanctioned competitions.
"It has no impact on grassroot, school, local or national level boccia.
"We recognise that communication throughout this project could have been more effective and that there will now be a period of transition required as we all become familiar with these rule changes.
"Change is often disruptive and difficult for some (as we know from other initiatives which we have already introduced in boccia)."
BISFed plans to award licenses to up to eight international manufacturers of balls, after 13 applied.
Boccia, which became a Paralympic sport in 1984, is similar to bowls or petanque, the aim being to throw leather balls coloured either red or blue as close as possible to the jack - a white target ball.
Originally designed to be played by people with cerebral palsy the sport now includes athletes with other severe disabilities affecting motor skills.