Lafayette’s annual Pétanque tournament returns Sunday

Photo provided by Geraldine Ortis -- Bernard Champey, 2013 champion of Lafayette International Pétanque Tournament, holding boules, or balls.
Photo provided by Geraldine Ortis -- Bernard Champey, 2013 champion of Lafayette International Pétanque Tournament, holding boules, or balls.

Most people have no idea what the strange game of pétanque is or how it is played, much less what the gravel-lined, rectangular spaces in Girard Park are used for, but this weekend the city will serve as host for the sixth annual Lafayette International Pétanque Tournament.

“When we first started, we called ourselves the international tournament as a joke,” said Mike LeBlanc, capitaine of the Lafayette International Pétanque Tournament.

“The more it went, the more people started showing up from all over the place. One year we had a whole bunch of people that came from the south of France. We were just blown away. These guys had been playing since they were little kids.”

The tournament this Sunday will bring an estimated 25 teams to Girard Park, each vying to prove their skills in the historically French ball game.

The game itself resembles bocce or shuffle board. Teams take turns trying to get a set of metal balls, or boules, as close as possible to a smaller wooden ball, the jack, and also knocking away opponents’ boules.

The tournament is sponsored by La Boule Cadienne de Lafayette, a local club within the Federation of Pétanque USA, which organizes pétanque tournaments across the country.

Six years ago, a pétanque equipment salesman, Bernard Champey, from the French company OBUT, introduced the game to the Acadiana region, said LeBlanc.

“He gave us a set of boules he had shipped from France for the first tournament and showed us how to run it,” LeBlanc said.

Since then, Lafayette locals have been picking up the game, and Girard Park built a pétanque arena, where 15 to 35 players meet on the fourth Sunday of each month to play.

LeBlanc said the club was started three years ago to draw players from farther away.

“We have a large French community in Lafayette, and there’s a lot of Cajuns who come out and play, too,” LeBlanc said.

LeBlanc said the tournament will draw players from Austin, Seattle and even France.

Champey is a former four-time pétanque world champion and the defending champion of the Lafayette tournament.

He also was the youngest world champion when he first won at the age of 16 at a competition in Lyon, France.

Champey and his girlfriend and teammate, Géraldine Ortis, have been coming to Louisiana for about eight years, spreading pétanque to the Acadiana population and participating in the Lafayette tournament.

He said he started playing the game when he was around 6 or 7 years old outside Valence, France.

In France, he said, the game is traditionally played by children, and adults play a sportier version called Lyonnaise, which requires larger boules and more accurate throwing.

Champey works in China for OBUT, selling boules and spreading the game. He said he also has worked in Cuba and the United States.

He said he could have taken pétanque to other areas of the country but chose Louisiana because of the laid-back lifestyle.

“We feel like family with them,” Ortis said, translating for Champey. “There are many places we could have brought boules, but we like Louisiana, and our friends are here. There’s a lot of space, which is very appropriate to play boules. The people are easygoing and nice to you. People are not as stressed out.

“There’s music everywhere any time of day,” he continued. “There’s a music culture and food culture. And the oaks are beautiful.”

Champey attributed the tournament’s success to Mike LeBlanc, Christophe Pilut and others who work hard to ensure the tournament runs smoothly.

Pilut, of Normandy, France, works for Le Centre International de Lafayette and also participates in the tournament.

He said started playing pétanque very young but did not play regularly as an adult until Champey introduced the game to Lafayette.

“It’s a mix of being outside in nature and using your skills, but it’s not very difficult to play,” Pilut said. “It’s a way to exchange in French with other players, to maintain and keep the French heritage here. I like that.”

Local and visiting players are invited to meet up at Johnston Street Java at 5 p.m. Friday.

Practice and pick-up games will be Saturday at Girard Park, and the tournament will begin at 9 a.m. Sunday.