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Dr Ian Plummer

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Croquet in the 1900 Olympics and Roque in 1904

James Hawkins writes

Croquet was one of a number of sports whose appearance began and ended with the 1900 Olympics (along with, among others, Live Pigeon Shooting - the reintroduction of which might be an option in 2012 for controlling London's verminous population). Croquet remains France's most successful Olympic sport. They won all the medals, because no one else entered.

Similarly in 1904, the US swept the board with Roque. The game was invented, as far as I've been able to determine, because a faction of Americans refused to play a game with any English connotations, and because inventing sports which no one else plays is a surefire strategy for medal success. They tweaked the rules and changed the name deliberately to dissociate the game from Croquet. The game seems to have become extinct in the 1960s, after most of the country's roque courts were concreted over to make parking lots.

I direct anyone interested to John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday, which has an entertaining account of infighting at a roque club.

Bob Alman adds

For Chris Hudson's exhaustive account of croquet at the 1900 Olympics, see http://www.croquetworld.com/News/Olympics.asp.

I'm not sure I agree with James' cynical explanation about roque's origins. I'm inclined to imagine that the game is a PRACTICAL solution to the problems of space and maintainence presented by regulation croquet courts.  The comparatively small roque court on low-maintenance clay-and-sand surfaces bounded by backboards made sense for that time, fitting into almost any small city park. The WPA (the public works administration invited by Roosevelt's cabinet as a response to the economic depression in the 30's built hundreds of these courts, most of which (but not all) are no longer used or which have been replaced. A roque champion who played on the municipal courts in San Diego as recently as the 1990's played a lot of croquet as well in the 80's and 90's - the near legendary (in the American West) C.B. Smith.

Rhys Thomas adds

Roque & CB Smith”

A little more on C.B. Smith, a three-time US Roque Champion. He won his national first title in 1973, and two subsequent titles in the years following (thus, Roque did not die in the 1960s). CB switched to Croquet in the early 1980s, bringing along his 24 inch roque mallet, which he used until informed that rubber tips were not allowed. He then modified a proper croquet mallet to his preferred 24 inch length, and then proceeded to play at the championship level for years, flummoxing many an opponent with his unorthodox strategy and style of play.

Those who had the pleasure and privilege of playing this remarkable character well remember "the periscope" and "the eagle," to say nothing of the stuffed parrot that often adorned his shoulder or the back pocket of his pants.

In one of the more memorable games I've ever seen, C.B. played John Solomon at the San Francisco open. Before the game, I told John he was in for a treat, playing CB. John replied that he was sure he'd already seen everything in croquet. After the game, which CB won 11-10, John came back to me and said, "You're right. I've never seen anyone play like CB." The next day John brought his VHS recorder out to document our colorful colleague.

CB served for three and a half years in the US submarine corps during World War Two--aboard the USS Spearfish and the USS Seal. He was also very fond of Honolulu's "Hotel Street" where he found the pleasures of the Pacific as a "Three Minute Man."

Today he continues to enjoy his retirement, playing poker, watching sports and savoring life in "Paradise"--his little slice of Santa Monica, California.

One of the great individuals of our game... and a heart of gold.

Sweet Thursday By John Steinbeck

Chapter 8 The Great Roque War

Pacific Grove and Monterey sit side by side on a hill bordering the bay. The two towns touch shoulders but they are not alike. Whereas Monterey was founded a long time ago by foreigners. Indians and Spaniards and such, and the town grew up higgledy-piggledy without plan or purpose, Pacific Grove sprang full blown from the iron heart of a psycho-ideo-legal religion. It was formed as a retreat in the 1880s and came fully equipped with laws, ideals, and customs. On the town's statute books a deed is void if liquor is ever brought on the property. As a result, the sale of iron-and-wine tonic is fantastic. Pacific Grove has a law that requires you to pull your shades down after sundown, and forbids you to pull them down before. Scorching on bicycles is forbidden, as is sea bathing and boating on Sundays. There is one crime which is not defined but which is definitely against the law. Hijinks are or is forbidden. It must be admitted that most of these laws are not enforced to the hilt. The fence that once surrounded the Pacific Grove retreat is no longer in existence.

Once, during its history, Pacific Grove was in trouble, deep trouble. You see, when the town was founded many old people moved to the retreat, people you'd think didn't have anything to retreat from. These old people became grumpy after a while and got to interfering in everything and causing trouble, until a philanthropist named Deems presented the town with two roque courts.

Roque is a complicated kind of croquet, with narrow wickets and short-handled mallets. You play off the sidelines, like billiards. Very complicated, it is. They say it develops character.

In a local sport there must be competition and a prize. In Pacific Grove a cup was given every year for the winning team on the roque courts. You wouldn't think a thing like that would work up much heat. particularly since most of the contestants were over seventy. But it did.

One of the teams was called the Blues and the other the Greens. The old men wore little skullcaps and striped blazers in their team colors.

Well, it wasn't more than two yean before all hell broke loose. The Blues would practice in the court right alongside the Greens but they wouldn't speak to them. And then it got into the families of the teams. You were a Blue family or a Green family. Finally the feeling spread outside the family. You were a partisan of the Blues or a partisan of the Greens. It got so that the Greens tried to discourage intermarriage with the Blues, and vice versa. Pretty soon it reached into politics, so that a Green wouldn't think of voting for a Blue. It split the church right down the middle. The Blues and the Greens wouldn't sit on the same side. They made plans to build separate churches.

Of course everything got really hot at tournament time. Things were very touchy. Those old men brought a passion to the game you wouldn't believe. Why, two octogenarians would walk away into the woods and you'd find them locked in mortal combat. They even developed secret languages so that each wouldn't know what the other was talking about.

Well, things got so hot and feeling ran so high that the county had to take notice of it. A Blue got his house burned down and then a Green was found clubbed to death with a roque mallet in the woods. A roque mallet is short-handled and heavy and can be a very deadly weapon. The old men got to carrying mallets tied to their wrists by thongs, like battle-axes. They didn't go any place without them. There wasn't any crime each didn't charge the other with, including things they'd outgrown and couldn't have done if they'd wanted to. The Blues wouldn't trade in Green stores. The whole town was a mess.

The original benefactor, Mr. Deems, was a nice old fellow. He used to smoke a little opium, when it was legal, and this kept him healthy and rested so that he didn't get high blood pressure or tuberculosis. He was a benevolent man, but he was also a philosopher. When he saw what he had created by giving the roque courts to the Pacific Grove retreat he was saddened and later horrified. He said he knew how God felt.

The tournament came July 30, and feeling was so bad that people were carrying pistols. Blue kids and Green kids had gang wars. Mr. Deems, after a period of years, finally figured that as long as he felt like God he might as well act like God. There was too much violence in town.

On the night of July 29 Mr. Deems sent out a bulldozer. In the morning. where the roque courts had been, there was only a deep, ragged hole in the ground. If he'd had time he would have continued God's solution. He'd have filled the hole with water.

They ran Mr. Deems out of Pacific Grove. They would have tarred and feathered him if they could have caught him, but he was safe in Monterey, cooking his yen shi over a peanut-oil lamp.

Every July 30, to this day, the whole town of Pacific Grove gets together and burns Mr. Deems in effigy. They make a celebration of it, dress up a life-size figure, and hang it from a pine tree. Later they burn it. People march underneath with torches, and the poor helpless figure of Mr. Deems goes up in smoke every year.

There are people who will say that this whole account is a lie, but a thing isn't necessarily a lie even if it didn't necessarily happen.

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Updated 28.i.16
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