Big-time bowling on a rollicking roll in Riga

  • 2002-10-31
  • J. Michael Lyons
One of the world's less trendy sports recently came down the alley to the Latvian capital, as J. Michael Lyons reports.

Deep in the heart of Kengarags, an inconspicuous Riga suburb filled with Soviet-era apartment buildings, sits one hell of a bowling alley. And it recently hosted the biggest spectacle in all of 10-pin bowling.

The AMF Bowling World Cup, the annual world championship of amateur bowling, is usually held at more weather-friendly venues. Last year it was in Pattaya, a beach resort in Thailand; the year before in sunny Lisbon. Las Vegas hosted it in 1999. This was the first time it had been held in Eastern Europe.

"It provided us with the opportunity to reach one of the world's fastest growing bowling markets," said tournament official Bernhard Barta.

Global grip

The world cup bills itself as the world's largest annual sports championship in terms of the number of nations that participate. Bowlers from 85 countries took part in this year's event.

Contrary to popular belief that it's a sport - OK, a game - that's most popular among middle-aged white men with receding hairlines, growing bellies and ridiculous shoes, bowling truly has global reach. Male and female bowlers from Colombia, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Singapore, made it deep into the tournament along with Americans, Brits, Finns and Australians. Even Cape Verde, Macau, Nepal and New Caledonia sent bowlers, though none made it out of the qualifying rounds.

Bowlers arrived at the Toss Bowling Hall in Kengarags on Oct. 19. Outside it was snowing. Old women, who likely would have been much happier had they expanded the nearby outdoor market rather than build something as frivolous as a state-of-the-art bowling alley, looked curiously at the exotic foreigners milling around their neighborhood. Many of the foreigners, in turn, stared just as curiously at the snow.

Igors Zhuks, the tournament's local director, had been waiting more than a year for this - since world cup organizers chose Riga among a pool of potential sites that included Lima, Peru, and Tokyo. The bowling center opened in April and is one of the finest in Europe, said tournament organizers, but it is one of many alleys that have sprouted up around the Baltic region in recent years. Riga now has seven, compared to one in Soviet days that was closed to everyone except top Communist Party officials.

"We hope this tournament will expose more local people to bowling so they see the point of the game," said Zhuks.

Striking swimwear

The point, of course, is to knock over as many pins as possible. For most bowlers that means throwing the ball down the lane and letting gravity do the rest. Bowlers at the world cup level, however, leave little to chance. Within a few turns they can determine a lane's "oil pattern" - where the ball will grip best despite the thin layer of oil coating the lane - and put just the right amount of spin on the ball so it rolls to the edge of the gutter then plunges into the pins at an angle.

The difference between most good bowlers and those at this level is that once they find the right line on a lane they can hit the same shot over and over, like that rare sharpshooter who can fire three bullets at a target and leave just one hole. If there are no mental lapses, only the unpredictability of physics prevents them from posting a strike every time. As one bowling TV broadcaster said: "The pins never fall the same way twice."

Australian Paul Trotter found his line early, bowling a rare perfect round - 12 consecutive strikes for a score of 300 - in his first qualifying game, building momentum that would carry him into the quarterfinals. Only 14 perfect games had been rolled in the World Cup's 38-year history.

Trotter's masterful opener set the press room abuzz. And yes, there is a bowling press corps. They're mostly avid bowlers who have turned their hobby into a job writing for publications like Bowler's Journal, Asian Bowling Digest and Spares and Strikes Magazine.

The last two days of the event - the quarterfinals, semis and finals - were televised on British Matchroom, a sort of sports channel for bar flies. It shows snooker, darts and bowling, among other non-Olympic activities.

Nick Halling, a veteran sportscaster who does American football and NHL hockey for British television, was covering his second bowling world cup.

Halling's signature line has become a mantra for many bowling fans.

"When I was in America I heard a woman say, 'in there like swimwear,'" he said between matches. "I asked her what it meant and she said, 'it means whatever you want it to mean.' So I figured that was as good a trademark line as any."

Fans are treated to the line only once per game, usually when a bowler rolls an important strike. In the semifinals he surprised everyone by saying it in Latvian.

Halling has also adopted the bowling lingo, like the word "turkey" which means three strikes in a row. At a pivotal point in the women's finals between American Shannon Pluhowsky and England's Nikki Harvey, Halling nearly jumped out of his seat when Pluhowsky rolled her third consecutive strike to pull ahead.

"Oh, that's a timely turkey indeed!," he said.

The 20-year-old Pluhowsky, the U.S. national amateur champion, went on to win the women's title. Finland's Mika Luoto, a 33-year-old bowling alley owner from Hyvinkaa, upset Remy Ong from Singapore to take the men's title.

Tournament organizers, who admitted they didn't know what to expect when they chose Riga as the venue, said they were happy with the way it turned out.

"We couldn't be happier," said Barta.

In the world of international bowling, Riga, it seems, is in there like swimwear.