Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

It’s not even mid­day in the mid­dle of the work week, but al­ready the clack­ing of steel balls col­lid­ing on a makeshift pitch rings out in Mada­gas­car’s cap­i­tal, An­tana­narivo. Cu­ri­ous by­standers watch as play­ers swing their arms, re­leas­ing the balls in gen­tle arcs whilst avoid­ing a large tree root pro­trud­ing from the square pitch. This is pe­tanque, a form of boules or bowl­ing beloved across the In­dian Ocean is­land na­tion. And with Mada­gas­car re­cently crowned world cham­pi­ons, the coun­try’s pas­sion for the sport has reached fever pitch-at any time of the day. “Pe­tanque is very, very im­por­tant. It’s ev­ery­thing to us,” says Andry Mamini­rina, who built the field next to the ma­jes­tic Lake Anosy three years ago.

Across the lake, at the foot of a hill where ‘An­tana­narivo’ is spelled out like the Hol­ly­wood sign, sev­eral games are well un­der way at the Tana Bowls Club (TBC). Tree roots are not a prob­lem here, and about a hun­dred play­ers-men and women, young and old-fill the well-main­tained fields. Orig­i­nat­ing in the south of France, the goal of pe­tanque is for play­ers to toss their balls as close as pos­si­ble to a smaller wooden ball called a ‘co­chon­net’ (piglet) or jack. When the French colonised Mada­gas­car, they brought pe­tanque with them. “I played pe­tanque for the first time in 1964 when I was in the French army,” said Clet Ra­ma­mon­jisoa, 75, an am­a­teur player.

But get­ting hold of the nec­es­sary equip­ment to train with is a chal­lenge. Play­ers rely on sec­ond-hand balls sent over by fam­ily mem­bers that have em­i­grated to Europe. “We don’t have much op­por­tu­nity to get equip­ment here-even just the balls, you can’t get them in Mada­gas­car. If you do find a pair, they’re usu­ally very ex­pen­sive,” said Michel Ra­nariv­elo, an­other am­a­teur player.

‘Like foot­ball in Brazil’

Pe­tanque fever was soar­ing when in late Novem­ber the world cham­pi­onship was just a week away-and Mada­gas­car was the host coun­try. It would be the is­land’s first time host­ing a cham­pi­onship in any sport, ever. Mada­gas­car has no more than 20 pro­fes­sional pe­tanque play­ers, but in 1999 it took gold and has racked up an im­pres­sive list of sec­ond places since then. “Pe­tanque here in Mada­gas­car is like foot­ball in Brazil,” said Beryl Razafind­rain­ony, pres­i­dent of Mada­gas­car’s pe­tanque fed­er­a­tion. “At first it was just a leisure ac­tiv­ity, but the 1999 vic­tory re­ally pop­u­larised it across the coun­try.”

But at TBC, many play­ers men­tioned ru­mours of “cor­rup­tion” at the high­est lev­els of the sport. Madas­gacar’s slew of sil­ver medals sparked al­le­ga­tions of match fix­ing and that the is­land’s team was throw­ing fi­nals for bribes worth thou­sands of eu­ros (dol­lars) — an as­tro­nom­i­cal amount in a coun­try where the av­er­age salary is just 45 eu­ros a month.

This year, the na­tional team was housed in a top secret lo­ca­tion, their cell­phones con­fis­cated and all com­mu­ni­ca­tion with their fam­i­lies cut off.

“There will al­ways be ill-in­ten­tioned peo­ple to cause trou­ble with our play­ers,” said Razafind­rain­ony. “The play­ers feel mo­ti­vated and I don’t think they would be in­flu­enced by any sum of money. But the sus­pi­cion was still there and so to avoid all that we de­cided to re­move them from so­ci­ety.”

Whether the sus­pi­cions were fair or not, the move worked. When France-the undis­puted champ since 2001 — was knocked out in the semi-fi­nal, Mada­gas­car grabbed the op­por­tu­nity to take back their crown. In a fi­nal more akin to a foot­ball match, the crowd whoop­ing and cheer­ing, Mada­gas­car crushed Benin 13-5. Sev­en­teen years af­ter the ti­tle that started pe­tanque fever in Mada­gas­car, the is­land’s en­thu­si­asm for the sport is greater than ever. — AFP

An­tana­narivo res­i­dents play­ing bocce (Pe­tanque) at the city’s club, in An­tana­narivo. — AFP pho­tos

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