As host to the 2009 SEA Games, Laos will expect to strike gold with its young female petanque team and see off the Thais – the region’s unlikely champions
Chan Samong, a petite Laoteenager, has been throwing metal balls five hours a day, six days a week under a scorching sun at the petanque playing fields of the National University in Vientiane since February. “We’re allowed to rest on Sundays, but I don’t go anywhere. I just stay here,” she said.
Chan, 17, the daughter of a farming family in Salavan province, southern Laos, won the gold medal for women’s petanque “shooting” at the Southeast Asian Games hosted by Thailand in 2007. It was one of the only five (of a possible 477) golds won by Laos, an impoverished, mountainous, land-locked country with a population of 6.8m that, in December, will host the Games in Vientiane, its capital.
Like all hosts, Laos has high hopes that playing to a home crowd will inspire the national team to win more golds this time. Hopes are particularly high for its petanque team, which won two golds in 2007 and has performed credibly at other competitions, such as the Asia Petanque Cup.
The national team has been brought to Vientiane for 10 months of constant practice in preparation for the Games. “I don’t know if my parents will come to watch me,” Chan said. “They probably can’t make it because it’s an expensive trip.” Her hometown in Salavan province is about 500km south of Vientiane.
Petanque, or boules, was introduced to Laos by the French, who colonised the country in 1893. When they pulled out in 1953, boules remained and the game of three metal balls and a fairly level backyard is arguably a national sport. That is almost certainly why the country pushed for the game’s inclusion in the Games in 2001. Its suggestion was supported by Thailand that, although never a French colony, is a four-times winner at the Games and ranked second in the world championships, with only France winning more gold medals.
Petanque, which translates as “feet together”, originated in its current form in Provence, France, in 1907. But its origins go back thousands of years to the Romans, whose soldiers introduced it to France – then Gaul.
Deemed more game than sport, it has never been entered as an Olympic competition.
“France has been trying to get it into the Olympics,” said Churin Patardilok, secretary-general of the Petanque Association of Thailand. “But the calendar is full, so if it is accepted as a sport they would need to remove one of the other competitions.”
At the SEA Games 2001, only Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam contested the petanque competition, but the sport is slowing catching on in Southeast Asia. Only Indonesia and East Timor are not competing during the games.
“Other Southeast Asian countries have been playing petanque longer than Thailand, but it has developed the sport better,” said Pratakorn Sakimngam, a deputy manager for the Petanque Association of Thailand. The sport has also benefitted from the patronage of the late Princess Mother Sangwal, who was a petanque enthusiast. She encouraged schools to play it and helped set up police, army and civil service teams.
When a Thai high school player shows promise, they are quickly snapped up by one of the official teams, Pratakorn said. “Nearly 80% of our best players come from poor families, so for them to join the bureaucracy is a big step up,” he said. There are now more than 300 petanque clubs in Thailand with about 300,000 players holding matches every Saturday and Sunday.
To date, it has been petanque players from the Thai army team who have won the most medals for their country. Churin has a cheeky explanation why this is the case: “The army team is very good because they don’t have to do any work.”
THE RULES OF PETANQUE
Petanque is played with boules which