Older folks play for their healthWith the tap of a stick, a red ball rolls and hits a white ball sitting two feet from a small rectangular gate. The red ball belongs to Lee Myeong-gyu, the white ball to his opponent. At his next turn, Mr. Lee takes careful aim and successfully taps the ball through the gate. For that, Mr. Lee scores a point.
Simple though it may look, this game bearing some similarities to miniature golf and billiards is not a walk in the park. However, it can be played by people of any age or athletic ability.
Welcome to gateball, a sport reminiscent of croquet. It may be a long way from soccer or baseball in popularity, but in certain circles it’s downright hot.
“I ponder my strategy. Then, I pick up the stick and aim at the ball, and I feel the tension in my fingertips,” Mr. Lee said. “I am thrilled when I see the ball entering the gate.”
Mr. Lee, who is pushing 80 years old, has played the game with his wife for the past 18 years.
“Eighteen years ago, I was close to death for a week because of high blood pressure,” said Lee Jeong-sun, Mr. Lee’s wife. Shortly after her illness subsided, Mrs. Lee took up the game as a form of exercise that wouldn’t overtax her body.
“Now I have lower blood pressure and a better complexion,” Mrs. Lee said. “Playing the game all day is not only fun but also good exercise.”
In March, the Lees participated in a monthly gateball tournament, a friendly competition against members of other gateball clubs. A total of 500 players from 98 teams took part in the tournament, held on 12 courts at Seoul’s Ttukseom Park. As with any serious competition, spectators on the sidelines cheered and groaned in response to the action.
Administering the event was Park Dong-geun, 60, an official with the Korea Gateball Conference. Disabled by polio at age 7, Mr. Park depended on crutches for 50 years. But he says that once he took up gateball, his disability lessened. Mr. Park now gets about without crutches.
A quarterfinalist in the Ttukseom competition, Lee Deok-gyu has been playing gateball for four years. The 54-year-old took up the sport on a lark.
“After doing the dishes, I went to a neighborhood park to play gateball,” said Mr. Lee. “There, I got some fresh air and gained strength, and got to know my neighbors better.”
The Korea Gateball Conference now has 200,000 members. If non-members are included, the number of gateball players nationwide is estimated at around 500,000.
“So far, those who are middle-aged or younger have taken up other sports, but more and more children and young people are playing this sport,” said Ji Tae-hyun, 74, chairman of the Seoul Gateball Conference.
Recently, the gateball association began offering “Three Generations” competitions, involving grandparents, parents and their children. Held annually, both regionally and nationally, the event has seen a surge in popularity.
Korea is not the sole province for gateball. Every four years, 128 teams from 30 countries participate in a world gateball competition. In 1998, the fourth world gateball tournament was held at Olympic Stadium in Jamsil, eastern Seoul. The city of Seogwipo on Jeju island has aspirations to host the 2006 gateball competition.
How to play
Gateball involves five odd-numbered red balls and five even-numbered white balls, numbering one to 10. Two teams of five play the game, which lasts 30 minutes.
The court, measuring 20 meters (65 feet) wide by 15 meters long, has three rectangular gates and one goal post.
Each player needs to pass a ball into all three gates, then hit the goal post to complete the game. Knocking the ball through a goal earns one point, while hitting the goal post yields two points. A game ends when a team earns 25 points.
The Korea Gateball Conference charges 20,000 won ($17) for membership; the annual fee of 20,000 won allows players to participate in competitions.
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by Kang Hye-ran