16 Nov 2008

Aiming for world peace - with petanque

10:18 pm on 16 November 2008

The gentle game of petanque has been hailed as way of forging world peace.

When competitors at the 2008 World Petanque Championships arrived in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, the head of the local federation greeted them with ambitious words.

"I am delighted to welcome you to the country known for its "Teranga" hospitality: without doubt, this tournament will help to strengthen friendship and peace between people of the whole world," said Gassam Ezzedine.

The marquee event for the sport, commonly known as boules, began on Thursday.

Playing side-by-side in the "boulodrome" specially installed for these championships were players from Israel and Lebanon.

"It's the first time Lebanon are playing at the tournament and the players are very nice people," says Israel's Tal Alkobi, a veteran of eight world championships.

"It's a good thing - we all want peace and not war."

Instead, any fighting is left to the boulodrome, where a record 53 nations are competing, as sub-Saharan Africa hosts the championships for the first time.

Created in the early 1900s by Frenchman Jules le Noir in southern France, petanque is traditionally played by amateurs beside the sea, especially in Mediterranean countries.

Yet the world championship, which dates back to 1959, is serious sport for its competitors.

"Since we want to enter the Olympic Games, we have to abide by the Olympic Charter, which means various drugs are forbidden while we also have alcohol testing at any time," says Robert Pierre, an organiser for the United States' team.

Further evidence of the intense competition is provided by the French team, who have travelled with a team psychologist.

"The psychologist is necessary if we are to work well," says Zvonko Radnic, playing for a team which has won the last seven titles.

"Everybody thinks that petanque is just a game but to reach a certain level and do well in the latter stages, you have to be mentally strong."

Perhaps unsurprisingly given this attitude and their role as founders of petanque - not to mention claiming three-quarters of the world's 600,000 registered players - the French dominate the tournament.

Not only are many of their former colonies competing in Dakar but they also boast 24 world team titles, dwarfing the four won by second-placed Switzerland.

Yet the competition is stiffer with this year's record number of entrants, ranging from the very big - China and Russia - to the very small - Armenia, Djibouti and San Marino, while the team from French Polynesia needed three days to make the trip.

Madagascar hope to take the petanque crown from France.

"Petanque is the most popular sport in my country, even beating football," says Madagascar's Jacky Dinmamode.

"Last year, we were vice-champion, losing to France, but this year we're here to be champions - the dream of everyone who plays petanque."

Madagascar have previously won both the team title, in 1999, and the single's tournament at last year's championships in Thailand.