The popularity of the French sport pétanque is catching fire around the world with clubs in more than 86 countries, a new Swedish Internet television channel, and large tournaments popping up in countries like Russia, Taiwan and Italy. But more than 100 years after the invention of the sport in Marseilles, courts in France are emptying and the fiery competition of pétanque is losing its spark.
“In the 1970s there were about 10,000 people who were enrolled to compete,” says Perpignan pétanque player Patrick Pedragosa. “But now there are only about 5,000. There were a lot more players in the competitions.” Along with his brother Thierry, Pedragosa has been playing the sport for more than 25 years, starting out as champions of the local junior league and moving on to participate in the French National Championship.
Although France still has the largest number of pétanque players in the world, there has been a 775 percent increase in licensed players who joined the International Federation of Pétanque and Provencal Game. Pétanque competitions are now being broadcast around Europe, drawing the attention of couch potatoes and young children all over. Players like the famous 18-year-old Dylan Rocher, who recently won the sport’s world championship, the Mondial la Marseillaise à Pétanque, have especially helped draw the attention of younger crowds.
Popularity has also grown because the sport is now better marketed. “What's nice is that certain big competitions play on TV, like the Marseilles and the French Championship,” says Thierry Pedragosa.
Pétanque clubs can be found throughout the United States on Facebook, which connects and recruits players from states like Alabama, Maine, Utah, Virginia and California. European designers Louis Vuitton and Chanel have taken advantage of the sport’s rising popularity as well, selling boule sets that cost upwards of €1500, proving that even a sport played in a dirt field can be couture.
Pétanque is played on a court with two teams, each team consisting of two or three players. The goal is to throw your eight boules, or balls, as close to the small wooden cochonet as possible without hitting it. The first team to reach 13 points wins the game.
The 10-year fight to make pétanque an Olympic sport has also given the sport a great deal of press and attention. Now the sport has even gained access to the SEA Games and The International World Games.
The coverage on television has been so influential that the number of recreational pétanque players around the world has tripled in just 20 years, according to the International Pétanque Federation.
So why is the sport struggling to stay alive in its country of origin when it is thriving around the globe? This question remains in the minds of many pétanque aficionados in southern France.
France’s portion of worldwide licensed players has decreased from 93 percent in 1979 to 59 percent in 2009, according to the sport’s international federation.
Perpignan Committee President Jean Villarem blames modern technology for the lack of interest among younger crowds. “We have young people but I think the problem is all these information appliances that ruin the future of sports.” If the future of sports is in jeopardy, then why is the cousin of lawn bowling facing replacement by sports like rugby and soccer?
Recent events at pétanque clubs in Burgundy and Montpellier have only hurt the sport in France, giving it a bad image. The club in Burgundy was forced to stop matches indefinitely after drunken players began to throw the metal balls at one another and the mayor of Montpellier was forced to cancel a tournament due to involved weapons.
Patrick Pedragosa blames the changes on new regulations and the pétanque federation’s Olympic aspirations. “I think that the competition is more serious; the festive spirit has been lost. There are lots of constraints that weren't there in the ‘70s. Not anyone can just play freely. Now you need this license, you have to have medical approval to practice pétanque. That's not how it was 20 or 25 years ago.”
Pétanque itself was created in 1907 in the city of Marseilles, France. At that time, the most popular game of boules was jeu provençal. In jeu provençal, players could throw the boule at the target but were allowed to take three steps before they threw it. In 1907, a player known as Jules LeNoir was injured and was constrained to a wheelchair, preventing him from playing the game. The other villagers decided to change the rules for him, forcing players to stand “pieds tanques” or with their feet together inside of a circle.
While the “feet together” rule is still present in the game of pétanque, most other aspects of the game have changed. In 2007, a law was passed that allowed participants to drink alcohol during competitions. Women and children can participate in the sport now as well, and tournaments have been created around the world specifically for these groups.
Despite the evidence that pétanque’s popularity in France is declining, there is still hope. Parents in southern France continue to encourage their children to participate in the sport. “My boys received their first set of boules around the age of 8 to 10,” said Perpignan resident Florence Delseny-Sobra. Fifteen million people still play the sport recreationally, according to the National Pétanque Federation, and France has won the past six consecutive world championships.
So in spite of new global popularity and pétanque’s struggles to stay alive France, the boules still lie in a French court.
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