Ten things you probably didn’t know about Pétanque

If you thought Pétanque was just a bunch of Pastis-sipping elderly men idly throwing balls on a French village square then think again. This sport has drama, danger and Olympic ambitions.

Ten things you probably didn't know about Pétanque
Pétanque is more high-octane than its image suggests. Photo: Egor Mizynik on Unsplash

1. Ancient Greek origins

Pétanque features fairly regularly on lists of stereotypical french activities and plenty of French people would have you believe that they invented the game.

But the origins of Pétanque (or boules) can be traced as far back as Ancient Greece when people played games which involved tossing coins and stones.

The Ancient Romans then came up with the idea of adding a target – which in the French version of the game is called a cochonnet (piglet). As for the name Pétanque – which is also used in English – it comes from the word “la petanca” in Provençal dialect, deriving from pès tancats or “feet together”.

A man plays Pétanque in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. Photo: AFP

2. Not just a sport for old men

The heartland of the sport is southern France, particularly Provence, and the popular image is of elderly men playing it.

And while plenty of retired men enjoy a game of Pétanque, possibly accompanied by a glass of Pastis, statistics show that more and more women are taking part. Today around 14 percent of the sport’s 311,971 registered members in France are women and there are plenty of women who take part in the Pétanque Wold Cup (yes, that is a thing). 

According to the President of the Ligue Paca, women bring a certain “sensibility” to the sport that the male players lack. 

3. OK maybe some…

One of the best things about Pétanque is that practically anyone can play, regardless of sex or age.

Pétanque legend César Brauer known as 'César of Montelimar' won the first ever Pétanque World Cup in 1962 and 50 years later he competed in his last World Cup in 2013. He died two years later.

4. The rise of the “bouligans”

The term bouliganisme (boules hooliganism) was coined after numerous stories about rising incivility among French players.

In 2007, the newspaper Midi-Libre declared: “Petanque is no longer a convivial sport. It is being undermined by constant incivility, verbal threats and gross insults. The non-respect of sporting rules by some players is driving others away, as well as referees who feel endangered.” 

5. Dangerous sport

Pétanque may be regarded by many as a gentle pastime but it has been known to get out of hand.

In 2008 a man in the village of Adé in the Pyrenees was killed by a fellow player’s ball as he was checking how close his own was to the cochonnet. In another tragic accident – quite unrelated to the sport – a pensioner was trampled to death by a two-tonne runaway circus elephant as he played the game

6. Don’t be a Fanny

If you’ve ever played Pétanque in Provence you may have wondered what a picture of a bare-bottomed woman called “Fanny” is doing there.

She is basically the goddess of Pétanque and tradition dictates that if a team fails to score a single point they must kiss Fanny’s bottom.

So if you happen to be hopeless at the sport, don’t be surprised if your competitors exclaim: “Il est Fanny!” (he’s Fanny) or “Fanny paie à boire!” (Fanny pays for the drinks).

7. Asian fans

Pétanque may be culturally associated with France but the International Federation of Pétanque and Provençal Game estimates that the sport – which has around 10-12 million players worldwide in 160 countries – is in fact most popular in Asia.

No surprise then that Thailand currently holds second place in the Pétanque World Championships ranking. An estimated 1.5 million Chinese children apparently play the game at school.

The sport is also very popular in Asia. Photo: AFP

8. A bac in Pétanque?

As France’s tenth most popular sport it’s perhaps unsurprising that pétanque has crept its way into the French school system. A handful of high schools in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region now offer it as a sport for the Physical Education baccalauréat qualification.

9. Alcohol ban lifted

In 2007 the World Anti-Doping Agency, which fights against drugs in sport, finally responded to calls from French players of Pétanque to lift its draconian ban on alcohol for professional players.

The president of the World Boules Federation, Romolo Rizzoli, had ridiculed the inclusion of alcohol on the list of banned substances for pétanque, complaining to Libération newspaper: “You can drive a car after drinking two glasses of wine, but you can't play boules?”, according to Der Spiegel.

Boules players still have a long list of substances they are barred from taking, including cocaine, steroids, hashish and growth hormones.

10. Olympic ambitions

A gentle pastime, you say? Well, don’t say that to the World Federation of the Sport of Boules. Founded in 1985 by three international boules organisations, the federation has fought for decades to get the game recognised as an Olympic sport.

Wit the 2024 Olympic due to be held in Paris, it would have been a perfect time for this most French of traditions to finally be awarded the status that it craves. Alas, it was not to be and the Olympic Games Organising Committee declared in 2019 that Pétanque had failed in its bid to become an Olympic event.

Instead breakdancing, skateboarding, climbing and surfing will be the new sports on view in Paris in 2024.



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Italian word of the day: ‘Inchiodare’

You'll nail this word in no time.

Italian word of the day: 'Inchiodare'

What do a carpenter, a detective, and a bank robber screeching to a halt in their getaway car all have in common?

In English, not much – but in Italian, they could all be said to inchiodare (eenk-ee-ohd-AHR-eh) in the course of their professional activities.

In its simplest form, inchiodare simply means ‘to nail’ (chiodo, ‘kee-OH-do’, is a nail) – a picture to a wall, or a leg to a table.

Ha trovato questo cartello inchiodato alla sua porta.
She found this notice nailed to her door.

Inchioderò la mensola al muro più tardi.
I’ll nail the shelf to the wall later.

But like ‘to nail’, inchiodare has more than one definition.

You can use it to describe someone or something being ‘pinned’ in place, without actually having been literally nailed there.

Mi ha inchiodato al muro.
He pinned me to the wall.

La mia gamba è inchiodata al terreno.
My leg is pinned to the ground.

You can be metaphorically inchiodato to a place in the sense of being stuck there, tied down, or trapped.

Dovrei essere in vacanza e invece sono inchiodata alla mia scrivenia.
I should be on holiday and instead I’m stuck at my desk.

Don'T Forger You'Re Here Forever GIF - The Simpsons Mr Burns Youre Here GIFs

Siamo inchiodati a questa scuola per altri tre anni.
We’re stuck at this school for another three years.

Sono stati inchiodati dal fuoco di armi.
They were trapped by gunfire.

Just like in English, you can inchiodare (‘nail’) someone in the sense of proving their guilt.

Chiunque sia stato, ha lasciato tracce di DNA che lo inchioderanno.
Whoever it was, they left traces of DNA that will take them down.

Ti inchioderò per questo omicidio.
I’m going to nail you for this murder.

Thomas Sadoski Tommy GIF by CBS

Senza la pistola non lo inchioderemo, perché non abbiamo altre prove.
Without the gun we’re not going to get him, because we have no other proof.

For reasons that are less clear, the word can also mean to slam on the brakes in a car.

Ha inchiodato e ha afferrato la pistola quando ha visto la volante bloccando la strada.
He slammed on the brakes and grabbed the gun when he saw the police car blocking the road.

Hanno inchiodato la macchina a pochi passi da noi.
They screeched to a halt in the car just a few feet away from us.

Those last two definitions mean that you’re very likely to encounter the word when watching mystery shows or listening to true crime podcasts. Look out for it the next time you watch a detective drama.

In the meantime, have a think about what (or who) you can inchiodare this week.

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.