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For older athletes, a time to roll

By Geoff PingreeCorrespondents of The Christian Science Monitor, Lisa AbendCorrespondents of The Christian Science Monitor / June 30, 2005



ALMERÍA, SPAIN

Perched perfectly still on the bullring's burning sands, Claudio Campillo meticulously alters his stance. His face locked in determination, he glances at his adversary as a strain of flamenco guitar breaks the dead calm. Then, crouching low to reveal a belly that could never fit into toreadors' pants, the athlete from Monaco lurches up and flings his arm forward, letting fly the heavy metal ball.

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Welcome to the bowls competitions - petanque (called bocce in the US) and Lyonnaise bowls - at the 2005 Mediterranean Games. Most other venues here feature athletic rivalries involving the usual cast of chiseled, broad-shouldered swimmers and washboard-stomached, bikini-clad beach volleyballers. But in the colorful bullring, site of the bowls events, participants tend to be cut - physically, at least - from softer cloth.

These two sports - which originated in the Mediterranean region - are equal-opportunity events, of a sort, in which competitors who waved goodbye to their 20s decades ago nonetheless stand a decent chance of winning gold. They are two of 27 contests being played through July 3 by the 21 nations that circle the Mediterranean Sea.

Bowls games originated in ancient Greece, although modern petanque (a.k.a. bocce) was invented in Provence, France, in 1905. Today it is popular in Italy, Spain, France, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, especially among older men, who gather in parks on summer evenings to chat, smoke, and throw bowls.

This is not to say that the athletes who toss the 3-inch-wide, 1.5-pound orbs are not fierce competitors. As 50-something Pepe Herrada, Almería's rotund reigning petanque champion, insists, one succeeds at this game only if he is "aggressive ... yet serene. And he must have the mentality of a winner."

That mentality is all the more important because the rules governing both games are complex. In the precision throw competition of Lyonnais bowls, a player earns points by throwing once at each of 11 different targets set 13 to 18 yards away from him. Some targets are hidden by obstacles, which cannot be touched by a player's thrown ball if he is to earn a point. In the other part of Lyonnais bowls - the progressive throw - a player runs more than a half mile in five minutes, while simultaneously throwing at six targets placed on two mats.

"You have to run 1,000 meters, so fitness matters," says Alphonse Lagier-Bruno, president of the International Federation of Bowls Games. "Young people do better because it's more athletic."

Apparently no one has told this to Pepe Soler, the Spanish team's precision thrower. A spry 60, he is showered with cries of "Come on, Pepe!" from fans seated around the ring when he prepares to unleash his ball.

Mr. Soler defeates his youthful first opponent, the 23-year-old Mohammed Sadok Tun Ziadi, a Tunisian, by one point. But he loses to 38-year-old Fabrizio Deregibus of the powerful Italian team.

In petanque, teams of two or three players compete to throw balls closest to a target, all the while striving to keep the opposing team's balls at a greater distance. The balls weigh less than in Lyonnaise bowls, making the game suitable for men and women, older folks and children alike, and a player stands still when he or she throws, so aerobic capacity is irrelevant. As Mr. Lagier-Bruno explains, "The petanque player's feet are planted, so the level of physical conditioning is not important."

Yet Monaco's coach, Georges Aimone, bristled slightly when asked if his team (with players ages 52, 58, and 68) was the oldest. He was quick to point out that rival San Marino has several older athletes as well (53, 56, and 65). "We have only 350 players in all of Monaco," Mr. Aimone says, "so we don't have many to choose from. Besides, age isn't so important in petanque."

Primo Beccari, San Marino's coach, also believes that an older player has just as much chance to win as a younger one. Some players even argue that years improve a competitor.

"With experience, everything improves," says Soler. "Your strategy gets better. Your aim gets better. Ten years ago, I wouldn't have been here. I'm better now."

José Sánchez, a petanque fan who traveled to Almería specifically for this competition, doesn't necessarily agree with that view. Although he was pleased with the Spanish women's performance (at ages 25 and 34, they won their first doubles heat), he wasn't impressed with the men's showing. "Experience helps, but youth has its advantages," he says.

But Mr. Sánchez, who qualifies as a senior citizen himself, plays petanque back home, and he confesses that it would be hard for him to give it up. "When you first start, you think it's silly," he says. "But then it hooks you. And while you're playing, you become consumed by it."

Some find that passion difficult to understand. Indeed, only a handful of fans dotted the stands Monday morning. But many here hope to change such indifference to the bowls games. International and local bowls federations are campaigning to make bowls an Olympic sport.

David Campario, trainer for the Italian team, says it all depends on which country hosts the 2012 Games. "Paris and Madrid are Mediterranean cities where they understand the game," he says. "If one of them hosts, our chances are good."

Soler would be as happy as anyone to see that happen. "The Olympics," he says, almost reverently. "Now that's an experience I've never had."

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