Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Portlanders tossing a steel ball? Mon Dieu!

Portlanders tossing a steel ball? Mon dieu! Thursday, December 07, 2006Kimberly A.C. Wilson Alan Shusterman tugs the glove from his right hand, crouches low and aims for a cluster of steel balls.
For a brief moment -- stamping his feet to stave off the cold, pulling a hoodie tight around his face and blowing out white puffs of air -- the Reed College chemist is winning.
The victory is short-lived, but for Shusterman and a dozen other aficionados of petanque, it's the play that matters.
Twice a week, even when the weather turns foul, members of the Portland Petanque Club wrap their fingers around flannel covered hand warmers and steel balls heated in hot water, and trek to the gravel pitches of Southeast's Westmoreland Park for a few hours of French-inflected play.
The club is closing its fourth year of petanque (pronounced pay-TONK), a sport born at the turn of the 20th century in a scenic port on the French Riviera. Until then, men favored a game called jeu provencal, whose rules called for players to run a pace or two before letting fly with a hollow steel boule.
But legend has it that townspeople altered the rules to accommodate a player who used a wheelchair after an accident, requiring participants to throw the ball from a rough circle scratched into the dirt without taking a step. In the dialect of Provencal, the new game was played "pieds tanques," or feet together.
Joe Martin, founder of Portland's first club, demonstrates his own technique, shooting a boule in the air so it knocks an opponent's out of the way with a satisfying clang.
"Five or six years ago, I wanted a game that I could learn to master, that would give me a new circle of friends and that I could play until I kicked off," says Martin, a 64-year-old retired industrial supplier.
He found what he was searching for in a game second only to soccer in France but nearly unheard of in the U.S. Still, with some 1,200 registered players in this country, interest is growing.
Martin's original group of 10 members has grown to more than 60 players. Nearly 40 more belong to a breakaway club, La Boule Rose, which plays in Jamison Square in the Pearl District. A third group, a start-up in Lake Oswego, numbers about 30 players.
And when the temperatures dip low, the most determined come out to play: Ann Hadley, a retired nurse practitioner; statistician Albyn Jones; Johnny Prince, founder of La Boule Rose; Joe Cortright, an economist; Daniel Andre, a retired airline executive; and club co-founder Pierre Agnesse.
The club shares the Westmoreland game house with lawn bowlers and croquet players. This summer, they hope to host the Petanque World Cup Qualifier Tournament for U.S. players hoping for a spot in the 2008 World Cup in the Netherlands.
Kimberly Wilson: 503-412-7017; kimberlywilson@news.oregonian.com
In the photo, Albyn Jones points his boule to the cochonnet.