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, you could replace the word “obstacle” with the word “something” without changing the meaning of the rule.
Article 10 says that even though a player might want to pick up or push down an “obstacle” like a stone or a hump in the ground, he is not allowed to do so. In Article 19, an “obstacle” is something that is out-of-bounds, that a boule hits, which causes a boule to bounce back in-bounds. In Article 25, an “obstacle” is something on the terrain (a big rock, a tree root) that gets in the way of measurement.
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).
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. 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.
Note that starting with the 2020 rules revision, the circle may not be placed closer than 1.5m to a circle or a jack in a game being played on an adjacent lane. On the other hand, it is legal to place the circle right against a dead-ball line— indeed, this is what you should do when an unmarked jack is shot across a dead-ball line at the end of a lane.
POINTING OBSTACLES, or: obstacles around the jack
Article 7 (in the 2020 version of the rules) says that the jack (after being thrown or placed) must be at least half a meter from any “obstacle” and at least half a meter from any end dead-ball line. This rule is designed to insure that it is possible for a player to point a boule anywhere within half a meter of the jack, in any direction from the jack. Here, a pointing obstacle is something (a tree, a wall, a wooden sideboard) that infringes on the open space around the thrown jack.
Note that starting with the 2020 rules revision, the jack may not be placed closer than 1.5m to a circle or a jack in a game being played on an adjacent lane. In addition, the jack may not be placed closer than 50cm from an end dead-ball line. It may be placed next to, but not touching, a side dead-ball line.
For some diagrams illustrating the new (post-2020) rules governing the placement of the circle and the jack, see this post.
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”. Now (as of January 2021) his position is 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.
His position is now the same as our position has always been. Players always should be able to use their normal throwing form, and 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 before the jack is thrown.
[See Is a wooden sideboard a throwing obstacle?]
Is a wooden surround a pointing obstacle?
Petanque is sometimes played on a terrain without boundary strings, but completely enclosed by wooden sideboards. On such a terrain, the sideboard is a pointing obstacle if it is less than half a meter from the jack.
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 something, 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.
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.
Post revised: 2021-01-28, to reflect the 2020 changes to the rules