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Paintball Madness

by Clare Coppa

You’re behind a tree in a forest holding a ball-shooting mechanism powered by compressed gas. For the last 15 minutes you’ve crashed through bushes, shooting and dodging tiny paint capsules flying 200 miles per hour (90 metres/second). Your heart is racing because you’re the lone survivor on your team of 10. As you listen for movement, someone steps behind you and pam! A paint sack hits your shoulder and the game ends.

So goes the mad sport of paintball, enjoyed by emergency-room wannabees of various ages. “Paintball players are on the edge,” says Michael Ratko, who develops paintball standards with ASTM Committee F08 on Sports Equipment and Facilities. “The adrenaline rush from playing paintball is kind of like jumping out of an airplane.”

Ratko helped to design the paintball currently used in games and tournaments. After he obtained a degree in chemistry from the University of Western Ontario, Ratko and a team of product developers created the paintball in 1983 for R.P. Scherer, a softgel manufacturer in Windsor, Ontario. The .68 in. diameter [1.73 m] gelatin capsule is filled with food coloring and weighs approximately 3.2 grams. It typically travels 300 feet per second [90 m/s] when shot out of a paintball marker.

The game is simply a more sophisticated version of Capture the Flag, Ratko explains. To win, players hang a flag in their opponents’ station. 7,678,000 Americans played paintball in 2001 according to a study of sports-participation by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA), North Palm Beach, Fla. Extreme sports like paintball “are at an all-time high,” SGMA said in a press release, ranking paintball the third most popular extreme sport in the U.S. in 2001, after in-line skating and skateboarding.

Ratko has been in paintball 19 years as a product developer, player, and referee. He is vice president of Technical Development for Procaps Inc., Montreal, a manufacturer of paintballs and equipment. Paintball has had its share of injuries that occurred because people didn’t follow standard safety procedures, he says: “We’re doing everything we can to keep it extremely safe. Statistically, we know it’s safer than golf.

“The first game I played, I ran to the first bunker 10 feet away from the first starting point, and within 10 seconds I got shot right between the eyes,” Ratko says. “I didn’t feel a thing because I had appropriate eye-safety equipment on, but I thought my heart was going to explode.”

ASTM Committee F08 began developing standards for paintball in 1995, has seven published standards, and several under development. “It’s a very proactive group,” Ratko says. “We care about the people who are playing the game and about our future.” Next month in Miami Beach, Committee F08 will vote on a paintball standard amendment and proposed standards for barrier netting, barrel-blocking devices, markers, and fill procedures.

According to Ratko, the sport began when American workers started shooting each other with oil-based paintballs intended to mark trees for maintenance. The craze caught on and the first official game debuted in 1981. “The adrenaline rush is amazing,” Ratko says. “After you’ve played paintball, everything else is like slow motion.” //

Copyright 2002, ASTM

Predators Two: Mike Ratko and son Aaron stand with paintball face masks and markers after a game in Iberville, Quebec.