Today we the explore the darker side of petanque, the dangerous side, the side of injury and death.
It will be a very short exploration. As human activities go, petanque is pretty safe. Accidents are rare. You’re probably in more danger crossing the street than you are on a petanque terrain. But, as in any area of life, if you are persistent enough, you will find something. So let’s see what we can dig up.
Injury by flying jack
The danger escalated, however, in the early 21st century. About 2008, the FIPJP approved the use of plastic-resin (as well as wood) jacks. Shortly thereafter, the FPUSA modified its version of the rules to prohibit the use of such jacks.
Anyone who has been hit by a jack whizzing across the terrain after being struck by a shot boule knows how much it can hurt and there is anecdotal evidence that injuries to players are more severe and more painful from these plastic jacks than from the wooden ones.
The FPUSA ban follows the lead of a couple of European federations that banned the jacks after noticing player reactions from being hit by the heavier plastic jacks. There is some suspicion that the plastic compresses upon impact from the steel boule and then is projected into the air with even more force than the wooden jack.
This isn’t quite as ludicrous as it might seem. Shortly after the FIPJP approved the use of resin jacks, some manufacturers started creating resin jacks with small steel cores. The idea was that this would be a convenience feature; with the steel cores, jacks could be picked up with magnetic boule lifters, just the way metal boules can. The problem, though, is that the addition of a steel core made the resin jacks even heavier and even harder, so they actually did begin to resemble small missiles. The FIPJP put an end to that technological innovation, however, by modifying the rules to stipulate that it must not be possible to pick up a jack with a magnet.
Tripping on a plastic throwing circle
This actually happens occasionally. Embarrassing. Rarely injurious. Never fatal.
Tripping on a string between marked terrains
A number of organizations and event organizers do not allow open-toe or backless sandals or shoes. This is not to protect players’ feet from dropped boules. Ordinary shoes offer little protection a against a dropped steel boule!
The reason for the rule is not the steel boules — it is the strings between the lanes and around the edges of a marked terrain.
With an open-toed or backless sandal or shoe, it is easy to catch a string between foot and shoe, and that has the potential to cause a considerable amount of injury. Even if you don’t fall and break a bone, there might be a twisted ankle or a pulled leg or back muscle.
Injury by dropped ball
This actually happens occasionally.
Injury by a boule thrown, bounced, or knocked out of the playing area and into the spectators
Death by thrown ball
It happened in the town of Adé, near Lourdes (Hautes-Pyrenees) in the southwest of France, on the evening of Friday, August 8, 2009. Shortly before midnight, a man named Franck Hourcade, age 39, was taking part in a game of petanque at the local rugby stadium. As he approached the jack to verify a point, he was accidentally hit in the head by a ball thrown by one of his teammates.
Local firefighters administered first aid without success. He never regained consciousness. He was rushed to the hospital in Lourdes where he died shortly after admission in the early morning hours of Saturday August 9.
For more information, google Franck Hourcade meurt frappé par une boule de pétanque or read the story in the Daily Mail.
On a more sobering note, on August 30, 2007, the Wall Street Journal ran a very interesting story about a then up-and-coming petanque player named Bruno Le Boursicaud (now a recognized international champion of precision shooting, tir de précision). It contained the following unsettling passages.
The number of licensed pétanque players in France has dwindled as clubs have a hard time recruiting young people to a sport associated in this country with old men and pastis… Recent violence during matches hasn’t helped the sport’s image, either. A pétanque club in Burgundy halted matches recently after players who had been drinking started throwing their metal balls weighing between 1.5 and 1.7 pounds — at each other. Three years ago, the mayor of Montpellier canceled a tournament when fans of rival teams flashed knives.
The French Pétanque Federation is also trying to improve the image of the game, by increasing penalties for violent behavior on the pitch. Punching a referee, for example, will now get a player banned for 10 years from club matches in France.
The story of the tournament in Montpellier is a sad one. The tournament, known as la Comédie de la Pétanque International because it was held near the Place de la Comédie, had been an annual July event in Montpellier since 1986 and offered one of the richest petanque prizes in France. Over a period of several years, however, there had been an increasing number of incidents (allegedly by gypsies) of threats and intimidation. The mayor of the city cancelled the tournament in 2004, and it never resumed.
The worst offenders, he says, are travelling Roma gipsies who move around the south of France. The Montpellier tournament involves 700 players each July and is one of the richest in France, with a cash prize of £5,200 for the winning team. What has happened in recent years is that a Roma team enters the contest and then has its supporters bully its rivals. As some of France’s greatest players have prepared to throw, they have seen knives flashing in the crowd and heard menacing hisses. The best teams have refused invitations to this year’s tournament.
“We’ve tried everything to stop it,” said M Salager. “But we thought it was better not to have it than have it ringed by riot police. The players say there is so much pressure now, it is impossible to play a normal game.”