Obscure Sports Weekly: Bocce Ball

Bocce ball, after soccer and golf, is the third-most played sport in the world. However, it has only recently become popular in the United States. While popular culture imagines it as a game for the elderly, it was originally meant to be played by everyone.

Bocce can be traced as far back as 5200 BC, when an Egyptian tomb painting depicted two young men playing the game. As ancient nations rose and fell, it spread to Greece and Rome, where it eventually became a national pastime. The sport is still very much associated with Italian culture. While it waned in popularity with the ages, it never stopped being influential in Italy. In the 1800s, as Bocce was dwindling among other European countries, Italian leader Giuseppe Garibaldi became an important force to reinvigorate the sport. The first bocce olympiad was held in Athens, Greece, signifying a new age of prosperity for the game. In the mid-20th century, Italian Umberto Granagalia took the bocce world. Most consider him to have been the best player of all time.

Most often teams are composed of no more than four people; the game can even be played in one-on-one matches. As in many sports, a coin flip determines which team will go first, and this will be the team to throw the first ball, referred to as a pallina or “jack.” This ball is smaller than the eight other balls used for play and serves as a marker similar to a target. Each team receives four balls. The object of the game is to get them as close to the pallina as possible. While these balls can be rolled, most players throw them underhand. The team closest to the pallina, or the “in team,” receives points, with one being awarded for every ball closer to the pallina than the other team’s. This ends the “frame,” and teams throw a new pallina from the opposite end of the court, continuing to play frames until the winning team scores 16 points.

While it is commonly thought of as a recreational sport, older varieties of the game, volo and raffa, are used for competitive versions of bocce. Volo is specifically played with bronze balls and raffa uses only plastic ones, but balls can be made out of any material in more casual games. All three versions were made popular in America by Italian immigrants.

Bocce has not yet earned status as an Olympic sport, a common matter of contention in the sporting world. However, it has been included in the Special Olympics since 1976, even before it became popular in America. Kansas City does not have an organized bocce team at the moment, but the Pinstripes bistro and bowling alley in Overland Park’s Prairiefire shopping area is a popular local destination for recreational play.

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