Pétanque – a national sport

by Steve Martindale

The modern game of pétanque traces its creation to a moment in 1907 in La Ciotat, Provence when a local player, Jules Lenoir, did what can only be described as the opposite of a ‘William Webb-Ellis’ and picked up the boule and stood still.

The ancient Greeks played a game with flat coins and later flat stones, which involved throwing an object as far as possible. This game was refined by the Romans to include a target object. The Romans then brought the game to Provence, where the stones were eventually replaced with wooden balls and gave birth to a number of similar games, collectively referred to as boules. The most popular format of the game at the turn of the last century was Jeu Provençal, where the playing area was larger and players ran three steps before throwing their ball.

Jules Lenoir, a keen jeu provençal player from La Ciotat near Marseilles, was left unable to play his favourite game due to rheumatism and his sympathetic friends agreed to play the game pieds tanqués (literally ‘feet anchored’) – a new game was born. The first pétanque tournament was organised shortly afterwards in La Ciotat in 1910 and today it is by far the most popular form of the game.

At last count there were around 300,000 registered boules players in France, making it officially the eleventh most participated in sport in the country. The numbers are slightly misleading, though, as many French play pétanque recreationally and are not registered. Estimates suggest that the game is played by at least 17 million French each year. Visit any public square anywhere in France in the summer and you are sure to see at least one match being played.

The stereotype is of old men playing while enjoying a smoke and there is some truth in this. Boules maintains to this day a gender imbalance, with only 14% of France’s registered players being female. It is, however, one of the few sports worldwide where men and women compete directly against each other in competitions.

The traditional metal balls are also a relatively recent invention. Until the turn of the last century, wooden balls were used. Félix Rofritsch, from the Alsace region, is credited with coming up with the idea in 1904 of covering these wooden balls in sheet metal to create what were referred to as boules cloutées, and these new boules quickly became de rigeur in parks across France. The solid metal balls, so synonymous with the game these days, did not officially come into use until 1930, an innovation credited to Jean Blanc. The first solid metal balls, dated at 1927 can to this day be seen in the Musée International Pétanque et Boules.

Pétanque – Basic rules of the game

Pétanque is played by between 2 and 6 people. The team going first draws a circle in the dirt about 35-50 cm in diameter and throws the cochonet (jack – literally ‘little-pig’) 6-10 metres away. The jack must be at least 1 metre away from any boundary.

The player who threw the jack then throws their first boule. A player from the opposing team then makes a throw. Play continues with the team that is not closest to the jack having to continue throwing until they either land a boule closest to the jack, or they run out of boules.

When all boules have been thrown, the winning team receives one point for each boule that it has closer to the jack than the best-placed boule of the opposition. A team wins when they have 13 points.

Pétanque – Some essential vocab

Pointer (verb) – ‘to place’ – throw your ball in such a way as to leave it as close to the jack as possible
Tirer (verb) – ‘to fire’ – to throw your ball with the intention of making contact with another ball

You can’t play pétanque amongst Frenchmen for long (and 86% of all registered players in France are male) without hearing the phrase “Tu tires ou tu pointes?”

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