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Ten things you really need to know about Pétanque

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Ten things you really need to know about Pétanque
Ten things you really need to know about Pétanque. Photo: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP
12:42 CEST+02:00
If you thought Pétanque (boules) was just about a bunch of Pastis-sipping elderly men idly throwing balls on a village square then think again. The Local lists ten things you really need to know about the sport (yes, sport!).

While the game certainly has its fair share of fans - many from places you might not expect - it is often dismissed by many around the globe as an idle pastime for retirees in the south of France. But, as this list will show, the reality is far more interesting.

1. Ancient Greek origins

The French would have you believe that they invented the game, but the origins of Pétanque can be traced as far back as Ancient Greece when people played games which involved tossing coins and stones. The Ancient Romans then came up with the idea of adding a target - which in the case of the French interpretation of the game is called a "cochonnet" (the literal translation being "piglet" in English). As for the name Pétanque – which is also used in English – it comes from the word “la petanca” in Provençal dialect, deriving from pès tancats or “feet together”.

2. Not just a sport for retired men

Yes, you are more likely to come across elderly men playing the sport but statistics show that more and more women are taking part. In this year's Pétanque World Cup – in which women have only been allowed to compete since 2002 – a grand total of 456 women are taking part. Today around 14 percent of the sport's 311,971 registered members in France are women. According to the President of the Ligue Paca, women bring a certain “sensibility” to the sport that the male players lack. 

3. OK maybe some...

One of the best things about Pétanque is that practically anyone can play, regardless of sex or age. Last year, César Brauer competed in the Pétanque World Cup, over fifty years after winning in the first ever World Cup in 1962. 

4. The rise of the "bouligans"

The term "Bouliganisme" was coined after numerous stories about rising incivility among French players. In 2007, the newspaper Midi-Libre reported: "Petanque is no longer a convivial sport. It is being undermined by constant incivility, verbal threats and gross insults. The non-respect of sporting rules by some players is driving others away, as well as referees who feel endangered." The Local France's story this week about death threats at the World Championships show's that "Bouliganism" is still afflicting the game.

5. Dangerous sport

Pétanque may be regarded by many as a gentle pastime but it has been known to get out of hand. In 2008 a man in the village of Adé in the Pyrenees was killed by a fellow player's ball as he was checking how close his own was to the target – the tiny cochonnet ball. In another tragic accident – quite unrelated to the sport – a pensioner was trampled to death by a two-tonne runaway circus elephant as he played the game

6. Don't be a Fanny

If you've ever played Pétanque in Provence you may have wondered what a picture of a bare-bottomed woman called “Fanny” is doing there. She is basically the goddess of Pétanque. Tradition dictates that if a team fails to score a single point they must kiss Fanny's bottom. So if you happen to be hopeless at the sport, don't be surprised if your competitors exclaim: “Il est Fanny!” (he's Fanny) or “Fanny paie à boire!” (Fanny pays for the drinks).

7. Asian fans

Pétanque may be culturally associated with France but the International Federation of Pétanque and Provençal Game estimates that the sport – which has around 10-12 million players worldwide in 160 countries – is in fact most popular in Asia. No surprise then that Thailand currently holds second place in the Pétanque World Championships ranking. An estimated 1.5 million Chinese children apparently play the game at school.

8. A bac in Pétanque?

As France's tenth most popular sport it's perhaps unsurprising that pétanque has crept its way into the French school system. A handful of high schools in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region now offer it as a sport for the Physical Education baccalauréat qualification.

9. Alcohol ban lifted

In 2007 the World Anti-Doping Agency, which fights against drugs in sport, finally responded to calls from French players of Pétanque to lift its draconian ban on alcohol for professional players. The president of the World Boules Federation, Romolo Rizzoli, had ridiculed the inclusion of alcohol on the list of banned substances for pétanque, complaining to Libération newspaper: "You can drive a car after drinking two glasses of wine, but you can't play boules?", according to Der Spiegel. Boules players still have a long list of substances they are barred from taking, including cocaine, steroids, hashish and growth hormones.

10. Olympic ambitions

A gentle pastime, you say? Well, don't say that to the World Federation of the Sport of Boules. Founded in 1985 by three international boules organizations, the federation has fought for decades to get the game recognized as an Olympic sport. Will the world ever take them seriously? We live in hope.

Another version of this story was published in July 2014

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