What is an obstacle?

revised 2021-12-21

This post has been updated to reflect the 2020 rules revisions. The 2020 rules about placing the circle and jack are discussed HERE.


The FIPJP rules use many terms without defining them. The worst offender in this regard is the word “obstacle”. “What is an obstacle?” is probably the most-frequently-asked question about the rules. So… What is an obstacle?

In the FIPJP rules, “obstacle” is not a technical term. It is an ordinary word that means, roughly, “something that interferes with the normal course of some activity or process.” The relevant activity or process must be inferred from the context. The context differs from rule to rule.

In most cases, an obstacle is just a thing

In most places in the rules where the word “obstacle” occurs, it means simply “something”. In Article 19, an “obstacle” is any out-of-bounds object that causes a boule to bounce back in-bounds. In Article 25, an “obstacle” is any object on the terrain (a big rock, a tree root) that gets in the way of measurement.

The most unfortunate use of the word “obstacle” is in Article 10, which says that a player may not pick up or push down an “obstacle” like a stone or a hump in the ground. This often leads players to say “obstacle” when they mean “feature of the terrain”. The next time you visit Ask the Umpire and see a question that ends with the words “… or is it simply an obstacle?” you can be sure that what the questioner meant was “… or is it simply a feature of the terrain?”

There are two kinds of obstacles, however, that require special discussion. They are throwing obstacles (obstacles around the circle) and pointing obstacles (obstacles around the jack).

As we discuss these obstacles, two expressions will be important.

  • The playing area is the area that encompasses all of the lanes or terrains where games are played, and also the area surrounding them up to a distance of one meter from the external dead-ball line.
     
  • The game’s in-bounds area (terrain authorisé) is the area where a boule in the game can be pointed without dying. In time-limited games, the game’s in-bounds area includes only the game’s home terrain (terrain imparti). In other games, it includes the game’s home terrain and also any terrains with which it shares a side line.

THROWING OBSTACLES, or: obstacles around the circle

Article 6 (on placing the circle) and Article 7 (on throwing the jack) say that the throwing circle must be at least one meter from any “obstacle”. The purpose of this rule is to move the circle away from features of the playing area that might interfere with a player’s normal throwing form. So I define a throwing obstacle as a feature of the playing area that might interfere with a a player’s normal throwing form if the circle is placed less than a meter from it.

The most common kind of throwing obstacle are objects that might interfere with a player’s backswing. Trees, telephone poles, trash receptacles, walls, and crowd-control barriers count as throwing obstacles if they are too close to the circle. The category of “throwing obstacles” also includes features of the terrain that might interfere with a player’s footing. A patch of ground that is too irregular for a player to stand with a solid footing, a patch of slippery mud, a puddle of rainwater— all of these count as throwing obstacles.

Circles and jacks in other games are not technically “obstacles”, but the rules do specify that the circle must be placed at least 1.5m from a circle or a jack in another game.

POINTING OBSTACLES, or: obstacles around the jack

Article 7 says that the jack (after being thrown or placed) must be located at least 50cm (half a meter) from any obstacle. The purpose of this rule is to insure that there is open space all around the jack, so that it is possible for a player to point a boule anywhere on the terrain within half a meter of the jack. So I define a pointing obstacle as a feature of the game’s in-bounds area (terrain authorisé) that is less than 50cm from the jack and physically prevents a boule from being pointed into the area occupied by the feature.

Typical examples of pointing obstacles include— a tree or tree root; a telephone pole or lamp-post; a fire hydrant; a wall. In the case of a controversial feature (a very small tree? a very large rock? a fence post? a patch of muddy ground?) the players or the umpires should decide before the game whether or not the object will be considered a pointing obstacle. Note that on rectangular terrains, the end dead-ball lines are in effect pointing obstacles, so a thrown or placed jack must be at least 50cm from any end dead-ball line.

Circles and jacks in other games are not technically “obstacles”, but the rules do specify that the (thrown or placed) jack must be at least 1.5m from a circle or a jack in another game.


There are a number of frequently-asked questions (FAQs) about obstacles.

Is a wooden surround a throwing obstacle? It might interfere with the backswing of a squat pointer.
Over the last few years, international umpire Mike Pegg has changed his position on this question. At one time he held that a wooden surround is not a throwing obstacle, because a squat pointer can always stand, rather than squat, when pointing. Then he held that that a surround that is higher than 25cm is a throwing obstacle because “at this height or higher it may impede a player”. As of January 2021 his position seems to be that— As a general rule, a player crouching or standing in the circle must be able to swing their arm backwards without touching anything. If they cannot, then the item preventing this action would be considered an obstacle.

I agree. Players always should be able to use their normal throwing form, and be able to do so in safety. Normally a wooden surround is not considered to be a throwing obstacle, but if a squat pointer expresses concerns when the circle is less than a meter from a wooden surround, the surround should be considered to be a throwing obstacle and the circle should be moved away from it. See Is a wooden sideboard a throwing obstacle?

Is a wooden surround a pointing obstacle?
NO, a wooden surround is NOT a pointing obstacle. Anything outside of the game’s terrain authorisé— like a sideboard— cannot be a pointing obstacle. This is true whether or not there are boundary strings indicating the dead-ball line.

Note that the rules have never said that wooden surrounds are pointing obstacles. What they have said was that (as far as a thrown jack is concerned) the rules for boundary lines (not wooden surrounds) were similar to the rules for pointing obstacles. That changed with the 2020 rules revisions. The post-2020 FIPJP rules for end boundary lines are still similar to the rules for pointing obstacles, but the rules governing side boundary lines have been abolished. The FIPJP rules now permit a thrown the jack to come to rest touching a side boundary line, even if the line is a dead-ball line. It is completely irrelevant whether or not there is a sideboard outside the line.

Are trees considered to be throwing or pointing obstacles?
YES. A tree trunk is both a throwing obstacle and a pointing obstacle.

Are tree roots considered to be throwing or pointing obstacles?
Generally speaking: NO. They are considered to be features of the terrain, like rocks. There is no clear-cut rule however— in some cases it would be reasonable for the two teams to agree to consider a really large root a pointing obstacle.

Article 19 says that a boule is dead if it goes out-of-bounds, hits an “obstacle”, and bounces back onto the terrain. Are things above the ground “obstacles”? If a thrown (or hit) boule or jack hits something above the terrain, is it dead?
The answer is NO, it is not dead. The issue here has nothing to do with what is considered to be an obstacle. The relevant question is: “Are objects above the terrain out-of-bounds?” And the answer to that question is NO.

Think of the dead-ball lines as invisible walls that the dead-ball lines on the ground project up into the sky. If a ball stays inside those invisible walls— if it stays directly above the terrain— it stays in-bounds. That means that if a boule or a jack hits an overhanging tree branch, a low-hanging light fixture, or a boulodrome ceiling, and drops down onto the terrain without going through one of those invisible walls, it is still alive. The photograph (below) shows an outdoor boulodrome in Seaside, Florida. Note the low-hanging light fixtures. Most of the light fixtures are in-bounds and are therefore normal features of the terrain, just as rocks on the terrain are normal features of the terrain. If a boule hits one of those light fixtures and drops onto the terrain, the light fixture may be damaged but the boule will still be alive.

seaside_terrain_with_overhead_lights

Is there really any difference between a throwing obstacle and a pointing obstacle? Aren’t they all just “obstacles”?
Some things (e.g. a wall) can be an obstacle to both throwing and pointing, but that’s not true of all obstacles. In this photograph the jack is located less than half a meter from a large tree root. The root is big enough to constitute a pointing obstacle but not big enough to constitute a throwing obstacle. (Boules have been placed on the ground to give a sense of scale.)

In this photograph (below) the jack is located more than half a meter from the trunk of a mesquite tree, so the tree trunk isn’t a pointing obstacle. But at the start of the next mene the low branch, which is only about 4 feet above the jack, would make it impossible for a player to stand upright in a circle placed around the jack. That makes the tree branch a throwing obstacle— at the start of the next mene the circle would have to be moved a meter away from the branch.

Here is a similar situation. The rail fence isn’t a pointing obstacle; it is possible to point to within half a meter of the jack in any direction. But at the start of the next mene it will be a throwing obstacle— the circle will have to be moved a meter away from the fence.
petanque_throwing_obstacle_rail_fence