Playing a blinder

Oliver Oglethorpe sits in his favourite stomping ground, the Blackburn Hotel, wearing Hawthorn’s yellow. Photo Jack Bennett.
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Oliver Oglethorpe, a 19-year-old blind footballer with an intellectual disability, is fulfilling his childhood dream. Jack Bennett reports.

Imagine this. A triumphant Australian Rules team holds aloft the premiership cup, resplendent in all the glory associated with winning football’s ultimate prize. But for footballers living with partial or complete blindness, emulating their heroes was a near insurmountable challenge before blind football came to fruition. The Victorian Blind Football League (VBFL) gives vision impaired footballers the opportunity to play competitive football, so for footballers such as Oliver Oglethorpe, immersing themselves in a competitive team environment is something they cherish.

Nineteen-year-old Oliver Oglethorpe is a member of Hawthorn’s inaugural VBFL premiership side, having recently defeated the Western Bulldogs by 7 points on October 14. He wears a broad Cheshire cat grin, pausing for a few seconds before raising his finger enthusiastically. His excitement, and sense of pride in his achievement, is evident.  

“It was the best feeling lifting the cup and celebrating. I hadn’t played football in so long, so getting back out there was amazing. Spending time with my teammates afterwards was really great. Some players cried, they were so happy.”

Aptly dressed in a dress shirt and designer cap in familiar Hawthorn yellow, he’s not resting on his laurels either. 

“I haven’t told you about my prediction yet, have I? You know how Hawthorn’s AFL team won their three-peat? Our blind team is going to do the same,” Oliver said. 

Oliver, an education student at Box Hill Institute, is partially blind and has a mild intellectual disability, which made it difficult for him to play organised sport as a child. As a primary school aged student, Oliver played for the Blackburn Football Club juniors in the Eastern Football League for several years, but his experience didn’t match his peers. 

Overlooking the playing arena at Hawthorn’s
spiritual home, Waverley Park. Photo Jack Bennett.

“When I was nine I had to stop playing football. I couldn’t see the ball well and I found it hard to make friendships with my teammates. Then my parents found out about the new blind football league, so I went along to one of the testing days. It was amazing. I knew I had to be a part of it,” Oliver said.

The number 9 has sentimental importance for Oliver, with the regular 2019 VBFL home and away season consisting of nine rounds. The four VBFL teams – Hawthorn, Bulldogs, St Kilda and Essendon play each other twice, with a rest week between each round of football. Hawthorn and St Kilda are affiliated with their respective AFL clubs, the Hawthorn Hawks and the St Kilda Saints, while Essendon and St Kilda are run independently. Martine Oglethorpe, Oliver’s mother, praised the VBFL program for helping her son accomplish his sporting dreams. 

“It’s been great for Ollie’s confidence. He’s watched his brothers play football his whole life so he’s got a new lease on life now that he’s finally gotten involved again now. He’s been a different person since he started playing footy again. Sport is so universal, so it’s great to see blind football developing to the point that people like Ollie are included in everything. It’s such an inclusive program, they encourage everyone to participate and be engaged. His coach is such a sweetheart too, it’s just been a fantastic program.”

Scott Nicholas, a disability programs manager with AFL Victoria, echoed Martine’s sentiments. 

“Blind AFL is great for improving self-esteem, getting fit and forming lifelong friendships. The competition really promotes a strong sense of unity and belonging. We’re proud to see it take off and we’re looking forward to expanding the competition in the near future”, he said. 

Despite the challenges Oliver faced in pursuing his own sporting career, his passion for Australian Rules football remained strong, supporting his beloved Richmond Tigers and regularly attending their home matches at the MCG. He watched with pride as his younger brothers, Charlie and Will, won multiple premierships in the Blackburn Football Club jumper. In 2016, Oliver joined a blind cricket club in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, in his first foray into competitive sport in almost a decade. His mum, Martine, played a crucial role in helping him pursue a spot on Hawthorn’s VBFL playing list. 

“Ollie was playing blind cricket when we heard about the program through his teammates, so Paul (his dad) and I sent a few emails, which is how we found out about the testing days. He got into the team and the rest is history.”

For VBFL players such as Oliver, sound is everything. Automatic bluetooth audio devices are fitted into the footballs, increasing in sound whenever the ball moves through the air. The specially designed balls also have USB charging ports, ensuring the bluetooth buzzing devices are always operational. A volunteer stands behind the goals, holding tambourines in both hands, shaking them whenever a goal or behind is kicked. 

“The rule changes make it easier. The ball buzzer helps a lot, it makes it easy to concentrate and not worry about running into people. It’s a bit like touch footy, a tap on the shoulder is a tackle, you don’t actually have to lay the tackle. We only play 10-minute quarters too. And if you’re totally blind, you can bring someone onto the field to help you. The volunteers were fluro vests so you can see them if you’re not totally blind”, said Oliver. 

Oliver is classed as a B2 player under VBFL guidelines, which means he predominantly relies on his hearing for direction. B1 players are considered fully blind, while B3 players use their limited vision as their main tracking sense. Coloured jumper trims assist in identifying players from different classifications, with blue used for B3 players, pink for B2 and yellow for B1. A goal kicked by a B1 player is worth ten points, while goals kicked by B2 and B3 players are worth 6 points. Bright yellow footballs are used, ensuring it’s easier for B2 and B3 footballers to see the ball. The VBFL is played at a purpose-built indoor facility at the Action Indoor Sports centre in Tullamarine, using a specially configured rectangular field.

Despite achieving premiership success, the season wasn’t smooth sailing for Oliver and Hawthorn’s VBFL team. In Round 1, the Bulldogs defeated the Hawks by a VBFL record 150-point margin. Three weeks later, the Bulldogs won by 36 points, winning again by the same margin in round 7. 

“We were getting a bit sick of losing to them. Losing once is ok, but three or four times is a bit annoying. It wasn’t so much about revenge but it was great to get them back in the grand final”, he said. 

Buoyed by the premiership success, Oliver’s confidence – a by-product of the VBFL’s inclusive agenda – is sky high. “Remember what I said before? I’m changing my prediction, we’ll win four flags in a row. We’ll set a new record.”