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It went baggataway
Canada's national summer sport is spreading beyond its preppy base in the United States

THE Indians called it baggataway. The French Canadians renamed it la crosse because it stick resembled a Catholic bishop's crosier. But whatever it was called this speedy ball-stick-and-goal game was until recenitly taken seriously south of the 49th parallel only along the eastern scaboard and by elite schools and colleges in New England. This has changed. Over the past decade lacrosse has spread geographically and the number of Amerians playing it has doubled to a quater of a million - a third of them women. And many of the American players now come from public (le, state) schools. Internationaliy, the quadrennial world championships at Manchester in the north of England last month maked another milestone for the sport. Twelve nations took part, a record number, with Sweden, Germany and Scotland competing for the first time. But the biggest sucess story is Japan, where the sport was introduced only eight years ago.

Today there are 10,000 lacrosse players at Japanese universities, and the Japanese team qualified to play in the top 10 at Manchester. Lacrosse combines the finesse of soccer with the quick pace and team strategy of basketball - along with some of the aggression of ice hockey. Devotees make much of the fact that you need not be exceptionally tall, bulky or strong to be a star. In the men's game, dexterity, agility, endurance and intelligence are the main requirements. These attributes are also helpful in the women's game, where there is a bit more emphasis on finesse than in the men's. Iacrosse originated as an Indian rite, practised variously as a preparation for battle, a medicinal ceremony and an act of homage to the deity. Though it did not take long to catch the fancy of white settlers in the United States and Canada, it took more than two centuries before formal rules were developed (by a Canadian dentist in the 1860s).

The premise of the version of the game played in the United States (the different Canadian versions of the game include box lacrosse) is similar to that of hockey or soccer: manoeuvre the ball among ten players (l2 in the women's game) by tossing it from one stick pocket to another. The winning side is the one that whips the most shots post the opposing goalie, who is equipped with an extra-large pocket. Today it is the women's game with its lack of an out-of-bounds line and its preference for the old wood-and-leather sticks that remains most similar in everything but its comparative gentleness to the old-fashioned, free-form Indian version. (A team of Indians, the Iroquois Nationals, played the modern version at this summer's world games.) The men wear helmets, pads and heavy gloves - a good idea when an opponent butts you or strikes you with his stick or the 6 oz (170 grams) solid rubber ball sails by at about 90 mph (115 km/h), versus 60 mph for the women. In buying their equipment, the men opt for lighweight sticks made of metal, plastic and nylon mesh.

These were inveted in die early 1970's and have helped to improve catching and passing as well as to quicken the pace of play. Despite the game's geographic expansion, 24 of Team USA's squad of 26 player, grew up in the mid-Atlantic Corridor (where youth leagues recruit players as young as six years old). Most went on to star in one of the top ten university teams, and have continued to play in a post-university (or "club") league that boasts even higher levels of skill. Happily for Team USA, these club leagues play by international rules and encourage their players to hone their own abilities, unferttered by the rigid team strategies laid down by university coaches. There is a professional league for indoor lacrosse, but the club leagues are amateur. The Team USA players either had to pay their own way to Enghnd or to find a cooperate sponsor to finance them, and had to negotiate several weeks' leave from their employers.

On the world scene, America is still the team to beat - and it emerged victorious in Manchester. "Our players are bigger and faster and better every year, so each time our level of play is equal to or better than the previous tournament," says Tony Seaman, the coach of Team USA. At the college level, Princeton Universiry is now dominant. In May Princetons men's and women's Lacrosse teams won their sport's National Collegiate Athletic Association title-the first such dual winners, for any sport in the history of the NCAA. Chris Sailer, the coach of the Princeton women, had seen her side lose in the semi-finals in 1989 and 1992 and the Finals in 1993. So she was over the moon when it finally beat her nemesis, the. University of Maryland. Bill Tierney, the men's coach had even more exciting tales to tell. He had turned into a champion a team that in 1988 won two games and lost 13.

The Princeton men won their first NCAA title in 1992, and they were the underdogs when they repeated that triumph this year. Princeton's game against the University of Virginia in this year's championship attracted 24,370 spectators a record and more even than for the NCAA's far more famous basketball finals. The women, playing a week earlier, drew a mere 3,522, but women's lacrosse supporters can seek comfort in the fact that universities, which are under pressure to expand women's sport programmes, now see women's Lacrosse as worth supporting. Lacrosse boosters are espcially pleased that the championship was won by a university with a distinguished academic pedigree. Unlike so many college football and basketball stars, most lacrosse players earn their univesity places through their prowess in the classroom, not just in the sport's arena.

Quelle: ECO - The Economist (20.8.1994)

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