Mário Bihári, Roma athlete and musician: "Blind people don't have to be restricted in sports"
Mário Bihári (born 1977) is a Roma athlete and musician originally from Slovakia. At the age of eight he lost the capacity to see, which greatly influenced the rest of his life. As a young child he found himself at a boarding school for the blind in Levoč, far from his family, but despite this disability he dedicated himself to sports. In 1991 and 1992 he was a Europe-wide student champion in track and field. Today he represents the Czech Republic in goalball, a sport especially designed for the visually impaired.
Since his childhood, Mário Bihári has played accordion and piano. He developed his musical gifts at the Jan Deyl Conservatory. When he performs with the KOA band, he is just as much of a personality as the charismatic Zuzana Navarová. He also reaches audiences as a solo musician and as a member of the band Bachtale Apsa ("Happy Tears" in Romanes).
Students at the elementary school in Kladruby conducted the following interview with Mr Bihári:
Q: Was sport one of your hobbies when you were little?
A: When I went blind at the age of eight, that limited me in sports at first. However, by the time I was 12, I was actively devoting myself to track and field. I ran the 60 meter dash, did long jumping and shot put, and at 13 and 14 I had a lot of success. The junior and adolescent European Games were held back then in Budapest and also in France, and I won in several disciplines there. At the age of 10 I had also learned to play goalball, which is a special ball game for the visually impaired. It's played with a ball that has bells in it, so when you throw it along the ground it makes noise. The field is 18 meters long and nine meters wide. The goal is also nine meters across. Each team has three players who try to get the ball and throw it into their opponents' goal. I still play goalball today.
Q: Are there any other sports a visually impaired person can do?
A: A blind person can do any sport, including shooting, which is also one of the disciplines at the Paralympics. Each sport has been adjusted so visually impaired people can play it. In shooting, a special electronic rifle is used and you can tell where you are aiming by the sound the rifle makes. I could ski or play hockey (even though I haven't tried hockey yet). I know football is also played, but it's combined football, where the goalie is partially sighted and the ball makes noise. There are also people on the sidelines navigating the individual players so they don't run into one another and so they know where the goal is. Football is played at the Paralympics too. So blind people don't have to be restricted in sports. They swim, ski, do slaloms, cross-country skiing, ride tandem bicycles, they even do pole vaulting.
Q: What's it like for a person who can't see to compete in a race?
A: When I competed as a pupil in the 60 meter dash, someone on the sidelines called to me to let me know I had just run 30 meters, and another person was waiting at the finish line to call to me as well. When I competed as an adult, I was connected to a sighted runner by a line. We had to absolutely match one another technically in order not to get in each other's way. It's the same with long-distance running.
Q: As a child you attended a special boarding school for the visually impaired. What was it like to be without your parents at the age of eight?
A: It was hard for me. All of a sudden your parents are just not there, they are far away. The school was in Levoč, which is about 350 kilometers away from Bratislava, so I only went home for vacation, at Christmas and such. However, people, even children, can get used to anything and toughen up a bit.
Q: You did not go blind until you were eight years old. How did you handle the fact that you suddenly could not see and could not do many things?
A: It was only at the very beginning that I was strongly affected by the fact that I couldn't see. My parents, however, helped me a great deal and gave me a great deal of love. That was another reason why my departure to boarding school was like being thrown in the water. I had to learn to swim quickly. At the school in Levoč they made no distinctions between the sighted children and the visually impaired children. Everyone was equal there.
Q: What did you learn at the school in Levoč that was different from a normal elementary school?
A: I believe we learned the same stuff that is taught at other elementary schools. The only thing we had extra was maybe goalball. I enjoyed physical education the most at school.
Q: You are a rather famous musician. When you were a child did you dream of making your living playing music someday?
A: In the beginning I didn't think about it like that. Before I went blind, I played the piano and later the accordion, but the decision to go to the conservatory was my parents', because they thought it would be the best for me. In time I also started to imagine standing on stage, being famous with millions of fans calling to me, but that was just a childish dream of sorts.
Q: Did you inherit your musical tendencies from someone?
A: As far as I know, there are no musicians in our family. However, I don't know the family on my father's side except for his brother and sisiter, and it is true that the Biháris are a musical line.
Q: Who influenced you most in music?
A: That is constantly evolving. When I was young, I was not interested in practicing, which is normal for every child who is not a musical genius. I did not start to really enjoy music until I attended the conservatory here in Prague, where I had a very strict professor, whom everyone feared, me included. However, he taught me to love precisely those exercises, that drill that is so important for a musician. After he passed away, I transferred to another professor whom I appreciate to this day. He is an excellent accordionist and musician. Later I started playing with Zuzka Navarová, Ivan Gutiérezz, Franta Raba and Camil Caller. They greatly influenced me. Zuzka was a great example for me, as were Franta and the others. I always appreciated Camil and I like how he plays drums, he doesn't just bang on them, he really plays them. Then there is Ačo Slepčík, who gradually taught me to play Roma music. He wasn't able to explain it to me theoretically, but he showed it to me directly. He led me to slowly arrive at the principles myself. Roma music, like any other kind of music, has its own order. I hope I haven't forgotten anyone. If so, I apologize.
Q: Your band Bachtale Apsa plays Roma music. Is that style closer to you because you are Roma, or is that just a coincidence?
A: It certainly is no coincidence that I play Roma music. It is also no coincidence that I am a Rom. I do love other musical styles, however. The songs I compose are inspired by the Roma musical tradition, so sometimes I thrown in a czardas and Roma lyrics, but the music has actually become something else entirely already.
Q: You seem like a person who can't be easily daunted. You became a European champion in running, you take photographs.… Did you ever have people around you who talked you out of such activities?
A: Well, my mother used to tell me not to play goalball so much and to be careful of my fingers. At the time I was taking photographs, people turned up who thought I was doing it to cause some sort of sensation and who didn't understand why I was really doing it. I didn't even want to explain it to them.
Q: You even have a Facebook page. How do you work with a computer?
A: Visually impaired people have adjusted computers, which means they have voice output. The computer talks. Another option is a Braille line on the keyboard. Whatever appears on the screen will appear under the user's fingers in Braille type.
Q: Is there something you would like to do that people think visually impaired people can't do?
A: I would like to show that visually impaired people can do anything sighted people can. However, it always depends on the specific person. If someone loses their sight and then just sits at home drawing a pension or going for beer, that' s their choice and no one can judge them. I'm glad if the people who come to hear us play - whether with Franta Raba or Bachtale Apsa – go home satisfied. I want our music to give them something.
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