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Although French thirty-somethings are just now discovering the joys of pétanque, its history goes back to 1907, when it was invented in the Mediterranean port town of La Ciotat, just east of Marseille, for a former boules champion who was crippled by arthritis.

Martine Pilate, who wrote La Veritable Histoire de la Pétanque, says her grandfather Josef Pitiot was running a tournament of la provençal, which is a precursor to pétanque but requires running. The former champion, Jules le Noir, suffered so badly from arthritis that he couldn't stand up.

"My grandfather suggested he stay seated in his chair and they shortened the pitch by half," she says. "Then he drew a circle around the chair and suggested that anyone who couldn't run any more could play this game with their feet anchored to the ground - a pes tanca in the local dialect. And that was the start of the game called feet stuck to the ground, which later became known as pétanque."

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The game caught on with injured veterans of the First World War, and became popular a few years later when the French won the right to a paid annual vacation. The first world championships were held in 1959. The International Pétanque Federation now boasts more than 600,000 members in 52 countries as far afield as Morocco, Thailand and Canada.

There are several variations in different regions and countries. Italians play bocce and the English favour lawn bowling. All have a similar object: Throw or roll larger balls as close as possible to a single smaller ball. But pétanque is the only version in which players stand on the same spot while throwing.

In La Ciotat, as in much of southern France, pétanque is still largely the domain of elderly men. But even there young people and the French elite have started to invade pétanque fields.

Anita Elash

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