No playing games here: these balls pay the bills

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No playing games here: these balls pay the bills

In a shabby, moldy basement in Sangdo-dong, southwestern Seoul, you will find a workshop where Lee Deok-su fashions handmade balls. He is perhaps the country’s only ball craftsman.
These days, Mr. Lee is busy making bocce balls. An ancient game, it is played one-on-one, in pairs or between teams of three on a long, narrow court. The aim is to roll the balls so that they stop as close as possible to a target ball without knocking it off the court.
Bocce will be staged at the 2004 Paralympic Games beginning Sept. 17 in Athens, where Mr. Lee’s balls will be used. To produce the best possible balls, Mr. Lee has met with the athletes twice. Demand for these balls is so low that they’re only manufactured in four countries, including Korea.
In 1987, when the sport was introduced to Korea, a set of eight imported bocce balls cost as much as 800,000 won ($695). Since Mr. Lee began making them, however, the cost has dropped to 275,000 won.
A native of Jinju, South Gyeongsang province, Mr. Lee came to Seoul with his family at age 3. His family’s poverty forced him to drop out of middle school and take up work sewing patches on soccer balls.
“Little by little, I came to learn the techniques after passing through countless sleepless nights,” Mr. Lee said. “At last, I mastered all of the processes.”
By the time Mr. Lee started hand-crafting soccer balls in 1996, the business was in decline. Cheap imports from China and Pakistan were cutting into the price of handmade soccer balls. But Mr. Lee had his brief moment in the spotlight when, for the 2002 World Cup soccer games, he produced two huge soccer balls, each with a 4.5 meter (14.8-foot) diameter.
Alas, the balls, which made it to the Guinness Book of World Records, no longer exist. The city of Incheon, which had ordered them, scrapped the balls without their maker’s consent, because of difficulties maintaining them.

by Jeong Young-jae
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