Get the ball rolling

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Mankind has been throwing balls at a target for sport since about 5,000 B.C. The Italians made it cool.

Known today as bocce, the game is one highlight of the Columbus Italian Festival, held annually on a quaint corner of Hamlet Street in Italian Village. The weekend also includes pizza competitions, strolling musicians, regional music acts and traditional dancing.

Since I can't dance, cook, sing or play an instrument, I decided to rediscover a game I learned in childhood. Here's what I found.

A Look Back

Here's a look at the history of bocce.

5,200 B.C.: Experts say Egyptian frescoes depict an early form of bocce that involved tossing polished rocks at a target

800 B.C.: The predecessor of bocce spreads to Greece. Early scholars and physicians herald the sport's athleticism, which they say rejuvenates the body

64 B.C.: During the Punic Wars against Carthage, Roman soldiers killed time between battles by a game that closely resembled modern bocce

Circa 27 B.C.: By the time of Augustus, bocce becomes a favorite pastime of nobles and rulers. Like the Empire itself, the game soon spreads throughout the African and European continents

1319: Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV bans the game, arguing that it thwarts militaristic sports such as archery. Other national and religious leaders would follow suit

1588: Legend has it that English admiral Sir Francis Drake would only face the approaching Spanish Armada once he finished his game of bocce

1896: Bocce is included in the first modern Olympic Games in Athens, Greece

1947: The sport's modern resurgence is sparked by clubs organized around Torino, Italy. The first Bocce World Championships are played

1970s: The game is enjoyed widely in the United States, thanks to an influx of Italian immigrants


How to play

Regions and leagues often play by slightly different rules, but this is what to expect from games Saturday, starting at noon.

1. Games are played on two courts of finely crushed gravel measuring 75 feet long by 12 feet wide. Matches pit two teams of four.

2. Teams can choose color of balls (red or green) or control of the pallino, a small white ball that serves as the target of four larger colored balls thrown by each team. When tossed, the pallino must pass the center line and rest at least a foot from wooden rails.

3. The team with control throws its first ball towards the pallino. The next team throws until one of its balls stops closer to the pallino or it runs out of balls. The first team then throws in similar fashion.

4. Only one team scores per frame. The scoring team receives one point for each ball that's closer to the pallino than the other team's closest ball. In the diagram, red scores two points. Matches are played to 11, finals to 15.

Tips for Success

Anthony Perry, who organizes and remains a threat in the annual tournament, had these tips for success.

Wear a belt: For measurements too close to eye up, it's good to have a flexible yardstick nearby.

Wear an Italian horn: Wily veterans will try to win with any means necessary, including the malocchio, or evil eye. Ward it off with this familiar amulet.

Befriend Peroni: This light, sharp lager is the favorite drink of bocce players. Learn the taste and build a tolerance; the tourney could last all day.

Vary your shots: Aiming straight on isn't always the best bet. Sometimes it's better to knock the pallino back towards your passed balls, angle along the rails or use bocce shots to knock away opponents' balls.