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Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 5.13.2010

 

photo by trask bedortha

Petanque

Get the balls rolling

By Rick Levin

Unless your idea of heaven is nibbling escargot while reading Rimbaud to Jeanne Moreau by the shores of the Seine — in short, unless you’re a total Francophile — you’ve likely never heard of petanque, a version of boules that involves pitching big hollow metal balls in the vicinity of a little wooden ball, called a cochonnet (“piglet”) or le petit. Think horseshoes, marbles, croquet, lawn bowling, curling — despite their diverse cultural and national contexts, all these outdoorsy contests of precision and accuracy contain elements of petanque (pronounced, somewhat onomatopoeically, as peh-tank). The origins of the game may reach far back to an ancient Greek game called spheristics, and petanque itself evolved directly out of boules, a popular European game where players run two or three steps before throwing their balls at balls. In 1907, in the town of La Ciotat, a man afflicted with rheumatism tweaked the game: instead of the running approached, he drew a small circle from where players standing inside delivered a stationary toss.

Since making the game part of his cultural curriculum when he taught at Fox Hollow Elementary, Michael Stasack, a French teacher at Churchill High School, has been an avid proponent of petanque — though he himself didn’t start throwing the boule (literally, “ball”) until last year. In 1998, he began coaching the sport at Churchill, where the game drew in a diverse and clique-busting array of kids ranging from computer nerds to cheerleaders to mainstream athletes, many of whom used the game to stay active while recovering from an injury.

“The excitement slowly has grown,” Stasack says of student involvement in petanque, which he describes as a game where “you can come in and be a star on the first day.” Not to say petanque is easy; it’s just that, as with games like chess or golf, the rules and rudiments are fairly simple to grasp, while the subtleties and complexities continue to reveal themselves over time. “It’s the weirdest thing,” he explains. “There’s a Zen quality to it, like ‘I’m going to be the boule.’ As your nerves get involved, it gets tougher.”

The basics, then: The game is started with a coin flip to determine who tosses the small ball, after which the same player tosses—softball style, but palm down—a boule as close to the piglet as she can. Teams rotate shots, not always one for one, though the types of shot largely determine the game’s strategic appeal. There are pointers, who try to crowd the piglet for points, and shooters, who attempt to knock the opponent’s boule out of play and thereby take up a scoring position. There are further intricacies involved, of course, but this is the game in a nutshell. 

Stasack says one of the most appealing aspects of petanque is that it provides an outlet for kids who typically don’t go out for sports. What’s more, the game is pretty egalitarian regarding gender, drawing a fairly even number of men and women. “This is a low-cost thing to get kids involved who aren’t normally involved,” he says. “It’s endured longer than a lot of activities. I think it merits a different level of support from the district,” Stasack adds, noting that despite the comparative low cost of the game, it’s been difficult to drum up administrative support.”

Stasack, who is also president of the Eugene Petanque iClub for youth and adults that plays at University Park every Wednesday (from 3 to 7 pm) and Sunday (from 1 to 5 pm), says that ideally he would like to see kids start playing petanque in fifth grade or so; he’d also like to see the UO start up a league. As his own children have grown up, Stasack says he’s finding he has more time to dedicate to the promotion of this uniquely French sport, which he adds could mean tracking down grants and endowments that would pay coaches a small stipend. “A little bit of money to say it’s worth putting the time in,” he says. About $500 would do it, Stasack adds.

Even lacking the relatively substantial funding received by other, more entrenched sports, Stasack has succeeded just this year in securing his team a spot in the junior nationals which will be held mid-July in San Rafael, CA. “The only other part of the country that has put teams together is Fresno,” he points out. “This is like the Olympics. The kids who win this are going to go on to the world championships and represent the United Sates.”

The French have a colloquial saying, derived from petanque, which is often leveled at indecisive politicians: Tu pointes out u tires? Translated: Hey, you gonna shoot or point? Perhaps the same could be asked of the Eugene School District, which may be dropping the boule on not getting behind an interesting and engaging team sport that doesn’t involve knocking your adversary senseless or running around like a bat out of hell. “Ideally, what would be really exciting is if we became the number one junior training area in the United States,” Stasack says of petanque in Eugene. “We’ve got a pretty unique situation with the teachers here, who are young, committed and willing… [And] It draws all sorts of kids. It’s all about good sportsmanship. That’s why we do this. We don’t really care who wins.”

To learn more about petanque in Eugene, visit http://sites.google.com/site/eugenepetanqueiclub/home or email Michael Stasack at stasack@comcast.net.



 

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