It’s fair to say that Italy knows a thing or two about durability. Its capital is known as the Eternal City. Across the Mediterranean there are magnificent structures that even now cause tourists to marvel at the glories of the Roman Empire. Imperial engineers used precise mathematical calculations to construct roads, bridges and aqueducts, many of which are still in use even in the 21stCentury. Despite earthquake damage, sporting venues such as the Coliseum in Rome and the Arena in Verona attract thousands of visitors who marvel at the formidable walls of these spectacular buildings.
A recent sporting triumph in Argentina illustrates that these Italian qualities of historic achievement, resilience and precision are still very much in evidence today. Despite his advancing years, Gianluca Formicone, one of the best Boules players on the planet and a two-time champion of The World Games, won his first and much coveted individual world title. The 47-year-old Raffa specialist has a bulging trophy cabinet having won over 350 titles, including two world championships in doubles and the two gold medals from the editions of The World Games in Kaohsiung in 2009 and Wroclaw in 2017.
One dream not achieved - yet
However the dream prize that Formicone didn’t achieve in Argentina was the individual world championship in Raffa. He had come close before, losing to the Swiss player Davide Bianchi in the 2005 final in Detroit. Speaking before his trip to the remote Argentinian town of Tucaman, the talented resident of Abruzzo province stated “I began as a child with four yellow and black bowls of wood. I played with my brother, we had a lot of fun and we dreamt, yes we dreamt of becoming Boules champions. I don't know if my dream of individual world gold will come true. For my part, I will always try to find myself ready. In my career, I have achieved everything apart from getting that title; I would almost trade them all (the trophies) to win it.”
Formicone's triumph in the World Championship makes him one of a unique band of veteran elite athletes who have accomplished their goal late on in their sporting careers. The Rio Olympics in 2016 saw two competitors take gold for the first time after decades of effort. At 58 years old, British rider Nick Skelton topped the individual Show Jumping podium at his seventh Olympics. Despite his 54 years and losing half a lung to cancer, Argentinian sailor Santiago Lange finally mounted the most prestigious step, after having secured bronzes at the 2004 and 2008 Games. Just short of her 50thbirthday, Tennis legend Navratilova won her 18thGrand Slam title with her mixed doubles triumph at the 2006 US Open. Golfer Phil Mickelson had his only success at The British Open when 43 years old.
Boules – drama and tension
If you are a fan of Mickelson or any other golfer, then you are likely to appreciate the Boules competitions in The World Games, taking place in Birmingham, Alabama in 2021. Though the game may lack the visual impact of other precision sports such as Ten-Pin Bowling or Curling where objects hurtle in all directions, Boules makes up for it in the drama and tension it produces. Anyone who has watched the Ryder Cup will instantly be familiar with the format of individuals and teams going head to head, trying to direct a small ball with precision to an intended target.
The three medal disciplines of Boules that have traditionally been contested at The World Games are Raffa, Petanque and Lyonnaise. Raffa is the event most closely related to golf, with competitors aiming from different distances, and is scored by the number of bowls nearest to the target. In Petanque, players have 20 efforts at dislodging the target ball, whilst simultaneously avoiding contact with obstacle balls. Successful shots are rewarded with either 1, 3 or 5 points. At the 2017 edition of The World Games in Wroclaw, Italian Diego Rizzi set a new world record score, topping the previous best score of 64 by three points. Lyonnaise is the most energetic discipline; competitors do a five-minute shuttle run and without breaking stride aim at the target ball, and each successful effort is rewarded with a point.
Rizzi is one of the sport's top competitors, with numerous titles to his name. On the last day of competition at the Wroclaw edition of The World Games, the Italian had a mixed day. He lost an epic semi-final by just 55 points to 53 to Henri Lacroix (the Frenchman would later retain his Petanque individual title that he had won in Cali in 2013). The competitive nature of Boules is illustrated by the fact that Lacroix is just one of three men to strike gold at different editions of The World Games, the third one being Formicone's 2017 playing partner Giuliano Di Nicola.
Only one woman is a double champion, Chinese Lyonnaise player Cheng Xiping triumphing in 2009 and 2013.One hour after his semi-final defeat, Rizzi was back in action, comfortably beating Claudy Weibel of Belgium to claim the bronze medal. A quick bite for lunch and then it was time for his third match of the day. For the final of the Petanque Doubles, he was joined by Fabio Dutto. They dominated their Thai opponents and were duly rewarded with the most coveted podium spot. Having watched the tall Italian on his march to glory at last year's Mediterranean Games, the most striking feature of his game is his composure. Rizzi does not allow the rare missed shot to distract him. His focus is always on the next shot: he stands cradling the bowl, a few rhythmic practice swings and then the release. Like many other Boules players, his consistency is key to his success.
One of the most accessible and universal sports
Whilst Rizzi was starting his bronze medal match, Formicone and Di Nicola were wrapping up their solid game against surprise finalists San Marino. The silver medal that Enrico Dall'olmo and Jacopo Frisini earned produced the first appearances from anyone from the small mountain state on a podium of The World Games. Boules has a reputation for being one of the most accessible and universal sports contested at The World Games. If you want to see some of the lesser-known sporting nations compete as equals, then the Boules court is the place to come. The likes of Madagascar, Thailand, Luxembourg, Bosnia and Chile have all experienced podium joy at the quadrennial sporting festival.
For Gianluca Formicone, the key to success at the World Championship was like so many Italians before him, devotion to family matters. Speaking before his trip to Argentina, the champion said “I recently lost both parents, it all happened too quickly. Last year I managed to win even though I did little training because of my family problems. From January until now, I have intensified training both on the bowling court and in the gym. I am ready for the big event. I will play with my parents in my heart.” As well as emotional turmoil the Italian had to cope with stifling humidity, uneven playing surfaces and unfamiliar rules. Despite all these difficulties, Formicone was dominant in his progression to the final. A comprehensive 10-2 demolition of Chilean opponent Palomino Oswaldo ensured that the long-cherished ambition was now a reality.
The World Games salutes Gianluca Formicone, a wonderful athlete who proves that if you have determination, talent and a dream, advancing years and harsh blows cannot prevent your ultimate success.
Brian Salmon for The World Games
The World Games is a multi-sport event staged every four years by the International World Games Association under the patronage of the International Olympic Committee. The 11th edition of The World Games will be held in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, 15-25 July 2021. 3,600 athletes from over 30 sports and 100 countries will take part in the Games.