Bocce fanatics think it can become an Olympic sport. Do you?
Before sunrise, I headed to Campo di Bocce of Livermore, California, to watch a warm-up tournament for the national championship being held there in June. Most people play open bocce, where you try to get heavy, grapefruit-sized balls closest to a little white one, but the type of competitive bocce played in tournaments is much more complex—everyone assured me that I would not fully understand it by the end of the day.
Bocce can be traced as far back as 5000 B.C., to the Egyptians who threw bigger balls at smaller ones for competition. Ben—a renowned player and coach, and currently the checkered-pants-wearing owner of the establishment—says bocce is the fastest growing ball sport in the world, and 25 million people have played it in the United States. I could only find evidence for the latter.
Ben learned to play with his grandparents, who used water-filled bocce balls. Referring to open bocce, he told me, “You have two hands for a reason.” One hand to throw the ball, one hand to drink wine.
There is an obsession with Italy at Campo di Bocce and—I’d assume—at most other bocce clubs around the country. The facility displays three flags: the American, the United States Bocce Federation, and the Italian. The walls are covered in Italian wine posters; people sport Italian soccer gear; posters advertise what looks like a bocce clash between the Mario brothers.
Ben told me that bocce is the second-largest ball sport in the world behind soccer (USBF says third behind soccer and golf). It seems like many of the players want to be part of soccer culture. One referee even said, “In FIFA—not FIFA—in USBF you have to …” and then described some technical rule about marking balls.
A woman said her friend broke his foot when they drunkenly went to play bocce on New Years Eve. While the players are generally quite calm, she said, a lot of people at the club don’t have fun because they’re too competitive. One guy came all the way from Portland, Oregon, and he’d yell at his ball like he was teaching his son how to drive: “Don’t go right, goddammit!” Or he’d yell at himself: “That’s not going to get there—have another drink.” One of the Italian players looked like a James Bond villain with his under-chin hair and angular glasses. He seemed like a nice guy, but occasionally would talk to himself: “Too long. Bite, bite, bite. Shit. Ah, it might be good.” Or simply, “Nooooooo!” as if his wife had just been shot.
After the final shot of a set, a player would often follow his rolling ball and make comments such as “That’s what I wanted to do” or “Fucking idiot,” referring to himself. One woman made an “Owuwowuwuw” sound after a bad shot—to which a Chinese man replied, “Was that Chinese?” The same woman told me later that the Chinese are excellent bocce players, and the sport has become a worldwide staple.
My favorite player was Benedetto, a 30-something Italian expatriate. He sported all-blue Italian national soccer gear and spoke Italian to his older teammate. Benedetto doesn’t have a right arm below the elbow. Yet everyone at Campo di Bocce maintains that he’s one of the best players in the world. You won’t see an athlete like Benedetto in any other sport, but he’s revered by his bocce peers.
Ben says he’s trying to get bocce televised and hopes it will one day be an Olympic sport—he thinks it can be done with good camera angles and powerful stories behind each game. At first this sounds unrealistic, but then I remember that curling, bowling, and pool are all televised sports. And this sport fosters diverse competition unlike any other.
Bocce players aren’t divided by age, gender, or even handicap. Men and women compete together—many on the wrong side of 50. Bocce isn’t a sport of strength, but acquired skill. It’s hard to wrap your head around.
When we think of athletes, we think of physically superior beings. Bocce isn’t on television because it doesn’t feature the physics-bending heroics we’ve come to expect. The world’s best bocce player might be a 60-year-old with one arm—can you see that on the cover of an Xbox game?