Archive for Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Bocce ball dates back to ancient Egyptians, Romans

July 20, 2005

As far as sports go, it's the most basic of them all.

How hard can it be to take four round balls and roll them toward a target that sits stationary on the ground?

Evidently, quite hard, and that's why thousands and thousands of sports enthusiasts across the globe continue to get so much joy from a game called bocce.

Known in America as "Italian Lawn Bowling," the game of bocce has roots that date back to 5000 B.C., when Egyptians played a primitive version of the game with polished rocks.

The only acknowledgement of the game's existence at that time comes in the form of hieroglyphics, which depicted people throwing round objects toward a fixed target.

Although the game existed well before it arrived in Italy, it did not become popular until it reached the Roman Empire around 800 B.C. It was then when the game gained the name, bocce, which comes from the Italian word "bottia," meaning "boss."

The game's name likely comes from the concept that the one who lands the most balls closest to the target is "the boss."

As bocce spread throughout the Roman Empire, it became wildly popular. However, the history behind the sport is not all fun and games.

Bocce, unlike most sports, has a dark side. Rulers throughout the empire banned bocce because they believed it took too much time away from archery practice and other military exercises and that made the empire vulnerable.

However, the banishment did not kill the sport. It continued to spread throughout time and the first league was formed in Italy in 1947.

The world's oldest sport has been played by such historical figures as Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci, Queen Elizabeth and even George Washington.

Traditionally played on a surface made of sand with wooden barriers, bocce has expanded to all types of playing surfaces throughout the years. It has been said that Washington built a court on the grass at Mount Vernon in the 1780s, and today most bocce players elect to roll on grass courts because they slow down the game, making it easier for players to stop the ball near the target.

The target, known as a "pallina" is usually a small white or yellow ball measuring around 57 millimeters in diameter.

The larger balls, simply known as bocce balls, measure near 110 millimeters in diameter.

All of the spheres are made of phenolic, a white crystalline compound with a similar feel to that of a croquet ball, and they usually are painted different colors with green, blue and red being the most popular.

The object of the game is to roll, toss or throw your ball toward the pallina in hopes of landing the "inside" position. One point is awarded for every ball that lands closer to the pallina than the opponent's closest ball.

Games last anywhere from 12 to 21 points, but the official bocce rules state that the first one to 12 points wins.

An officially sanctioned bocce court measures 91 feet long by 13 feet wide, but because the game has become incredibly popular at picnics and family gatherings, a court can be thrown together on just about any surface in just about any amount of space. Bocce sets cost anywhere from $49, at Target and Wal-Mart, to more than $200 for custom and luxury sets. They're commonly sold in the United States as part of a set, which includes badminton, volleyball and frisbee. Bocce sets can be purchased separately, complete with a nylon carrying case and official rule book.

The rules of the game and codes of conduct can be found at www.bocce.org/rules, but for the most part anything goes. If a ball is in your way, blast it out of there. If you're not having a good rolling day, play defense by setting up a blockade so your opponent cannot have a clean shot at the pallina.

Recently, the U.S. Bocce National Championships took place in Orion, Mich. Betsy Erikson, the public relations director for the Palazzo di Bocce, where the tournament took place, said more than 90 players participated in this year's event.

Later this year, the World Singles Bocce Championships will take place, also in Orion, and Erikson said she expects participants from more than 30 countries to vie for the title.

Erikson has been around the game of bocce for a while. She said one of the things that makes the sport so popular is how easy it is to play.

"The thing that's really appealing about bocce is that anybody can play," Erikson said. "It's simple to learn, but difficult to get good at."

The Palazzo di Bocce is one of the hottest bocce spots in the world. It opened just more than a year ago and is home to 10 indoor courts and some of the hottest names in the sport.

Although its role in the sport pales in comparison to that of other countries, the United States is home to one of the fastest growing bocce markets.

John C. Ross serves as the president of the U.S. Bocce Federation, which is based in Monte Sereno, Calif.

A recent article written by the Associated Press revealed that the U.S. Bocce Federation has roughly 2,500 members and more than 45 active clubs.

The largest bocce setting in the country is in Martinez, Calif., where the Martinez Bocce Federation is home to 14 lighted courts and more than 1,200 members.

Locally, bocce courts can be found at the Velvet Dog, a Kansas City, Mo., drinking establishment in Downtown Kansas City on 31st Street.

The Velvet Dog's bocce courts are located on the back patio, and owner Chris Seferyn said the game's appeal at the bar fills more of a social role than anything else.

"People like to play the game, but mostly they just go out there and mess around on the court," Seferyn said. "This is bar bocce. True bocce is Italian lawn bowling where you have old Italian guys fighting it out to the death."

The Velvet Dog features one court that measures roughly 30 feet in length. Although the patio can get crowded, the wait to play is usually minimal, Seferyn said.

In addition to the Velvet Dog, Olathe will host a bocce tournament in October at the Prairie Center Park Soccer Fields.

The only other officially recognized bocce clubs in Kansas are located in Wichita, but the sport is believed to be quite popular at low-key gatherings throughout the area.

No one knows for sure what the future holds for bocce in the United States. But Erikson said that Palazzo di Bocce owner Tony Battaglia hopes his venue will help fuel the sport's growth across the nation.

"People have really begun to embrace the sport," Erikson said. "And one of Tony's biggest interests is seeing it grow with kids because the kids are the future of everything."

Rating bocce ball

  • Popularity: Low - But it's increasing throughout the country each year.
  • Playability: High - anyone can learn to play in a matter of minutes, and even the most amateur players can compete with the pros.
  • Availability: High - All it takes is an open area and you've got yourself a bocce court. The game is traditionally played on sand or hard surfaces, but parks and grass can do the trick.
  • Cost Factor: Low - A good bocce set can be picked up at Target or Wal-Mart for less than $50.

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