La pétanque

This sport (yes, Pétanque is a sport, but we'll talk about that later) is an intrinsic part of life in Marseille and has been from generation to generation! Every quarter has its own boules court and/or boules association, including, of course, a watering hole...

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First of all, a touch of history

Pétanque as we know it today was born in 1907 in La Ciotat (i.e. here at home)!
Jules Hugues, a champion of 'jeu provençal' (an ancient version of Pétanque where people took a run-up before throwing the ball, rather like our friends from Lyon), could no longer enjoy his favourite game due to rheumatism. Instead, he came up with the idea of changing the rules a bit: he drew a circle, threw the jack 5 or 6 metres away and, with his feet planted in the circle, started throwing the balls to try and get as near as possible to the jack. Pétanque was born and Jules Hugues had earned his claim to fame in the local school textbooks and bars alike.

Three years later, at the first official tournament in La Ciotat in 1910, the name 'Pétanque' became official: Pétanque = 'pe' (foot in Provencal dialect) and 'tanca' (stake), i.e.: playing with your feet anchored to the ground.
For the anecdote, the myth began outside a café called 'La Boule Etoilée' run by two brothers. One of them (Ernest Pitiot) set about fine-tuning the rules still in use today.

But now that Pétanque is here, the feet are anchored and the players don't even need to take a run-up, can we legitimately ask ourselves is this really a sport?
The answer is yes, Pétanque is a sport! Admittedly less tiring than a rugby match, but it is a sport in its own right with an international federation founded in Marseille in 1958. And in 2005, it was even declared a 'high-level sport' by the French Ministry of Youth and Sport!

Beyond the sporting nature of Pétanque in terms of concentration, field analysis and team decisions, I consider it a sport for many more reasons – and here's why:

  • Playing for one or two hours in the blazing sunshine while trying to steal one or two points per round is a sport in itself! You joke with the opponents, nudge a ball when they have their back turned, distract them when they're about to throw and, especially, have a huge row at the end of the game when it's time to count up the points! A good game of Pétanque means one hour of play and one hour of debate.

  • It's a sport because you have to stay concentrated while drinking the aperitif! Yes, the aperitif is very important and even more so when you're playing Pétanque! The loser traditionally pays for a round, especially if the score is 13 – 0 (or 13 to nothing as my uncle would say).
    2 hours of Pétanque and a litre of pastis – now that requires form!

What's good about Pétanque is that everyone can play: youngsters, elders... every generation wants a go and you can easily find yourself in a team with Jacky, 83 years, who will teach you how to play while telling you how he went out with his neighbour for 15 years without anyone noticing. Sounds familiar?

Yes, we often talk and play at the same time – Pétanque is also made for pleasant chit-chat. And if you manage a few strikes and win the game that's not so bad either eh?

I've already played Pétanque outside Provence, but it clearly hasn't got the same allure!
Of course, you can play in Paris or Brittany, wherever there's a court or even a patch of gravel, but there will always be something missing... the accent, the jokes, the cheating or the sunshine. That's why Pétanque is an intrinsic part of the South! It's the people that make the game.

So yes, there are major tournaments such as the Mondial de la Marseillaise à Pétanque, there are international encounters and maybe soon even the Olympic Games!

But for me, the real game of Pétanque is the one played on a patch of earth in front of a bar, with a barbecue cooking up and a camp chair with a grandma on it shouting at her husband because he's teaching a 20 year-old girl how to play with a little too much enthusiasm...
That's REAL pétanque! And the next time you play, have a drink on Jules Hugues and take a dip in the Med in La Ciotat in his memory :-)

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