Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

Even a visit to an alley by Barack Obama last week couldn't boost the image of what used to be the quintessential blue-collar pastime
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The Independent Online

Thank heavens there's at least one thing that Barack Obama is lousy at. Anxious to polish his credentials as an ordinary Joe, the super-polished and super-cool Democratic contender ventured the other day into a bowling alley while campaigning in Pennsylvania and – not to put too fine a point on it – disgraced himself.

His first few efforts failed to strike a single pin. In seven goes he managed just 37 points. "Real men who aspire to the presidency should score 150," jeered Joe Scarborough, ex-Republican-Congressman-turned-talk-radio-motormouth, describing Obama's performance as "dainty" and "prissy".

And in a way it was. Bowling here has traditionally been a blue-collar pastime. Practitioners would not normally include a slender and graceful senator from Illinois, dressed in crisp white shirt and tie, elegantly loping to the delivery line, only to spray the ball into the gutter. "My economic plan is better than my bowling," Obama assured fellow bowlers. "It has to be," one punter yelled back.

But we should not be too hard on him. For one thing, Obama claimed he hadn't played since Jimmy Carter was in the White House, almost 30 years ago. More to the point, it's getting harder and harder to find a place to hone those 150-points-a-game skills – one of those splendid old-style bowling alleys reeking with atmosphere, where candidates go to prove they are men (or women) of the people, but which are now going the way of the drive-in movie.

Bald statistics tell the story. Back in the 1970s there were more than 11,000 bowling alleys, according to the United States Bowling Congress (USBC). By 1993 the number had shrunk to 7,500. Today it is below 5,600. While some alleys have found a new life, incorporated into glitzy entertainment complexes, most have just disappeared.

I can testify personally to the loss. When I've visited my in-laws in Edwardsville, a prototypical midwestern town in Obama's home state of Illinois, one of the things I always loved was a stop at the local bowling alley. It wasn't exactly classy, but it was a terrific place to hang out for a couple of hours, for just a few dollars. You met people. You could enjoy a beer and a hot dog. And if you got too depressed at making Obama-like scores at bowling, there was always a TV showing a baseball game, a pool table, and some of those old-style pin-ball machines with flippers – more American gifts to the world now facing extinction.

The clientele was nothing special either: kids who could have stepped off the set of American Graffiti, families with giggling mums – and naturally a few hotshots.

But for bowling hackers like me, a strike is seventh heaven. To get exactly the right amount of spin on a ball, and watch it curve into the pack and send every pin flying, is a moment of sublimity akin to bisecting the fairway with a perfect golf drive. Alas, I must now seek that pleasure elsewhere in southern Illinois. When I went back last summer, the bowling centre had vanished. In its stead stood another chain megastore.

The same thing is happening all over. Bowling has always had an image problem, identified with men in those funny shoes, with slicked-back hair, garish shirts and bulging bellies. Today, the old-fashioned alleys are most easily found in bastions of blue-collar America, in rust-belt states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, and old immigrant cities like Milwaukee, Wisconsin, headquarters (until now) of the USBC.

Neither has the sport been lucky with its aficionados at the highest level. Baseball has both Bushes. Horseriding had Ronald Reagan. JFK was a posterboy for sailing; while Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton were devoted golfers. And which President loved bowling? None other than the disgraced Richard Nixon, who perhaps finalised his celebrated "enemies list" and plotted Watergate strategy at the bowling alley he had installed at the White House in 1969.

So maybe bowling did need a facelift. If so, it's certainly getting one. The biggest casualty is organised league bowling. These days, pro bowling has a small but growing niche on television. But back in the 1950s and 1960s, before basketball and football became megasports, nine million bowlers were officially registered in the US. Today there are fewer than three million.

You don't have to look far for reasons for the decline – the rise of the internet, videogames and sophisticated home entertainment systems. Bowling, therefore, has had to adapt or perish. Farewell burgers and six-packs. Welcome instead to the 21st-century bowling-centre experience, complete with backlit lanes and luminous balls, strobe and laser lights and banks of video screens. These days menus feature the likes of artichoke fondue, shrimp dim sum and sirloin steaks fine enough to tickle even Barack Obama's palate, washed down with Bordeaux, not Budweiser.

Inevitably too, bowling has not escaped the dubious wonders of modern sports technology. "Reactive" urethane balls, elaborately engineered to be more responsive to spin, are now the rage.

But the most recent sign of the times is surely the saddest. Four weeks ago, the USBC voted to move from its spiritual home in gritty, beer-and-brats Milwaukee to Arlington, Texas. Texas? They'll have cheerleaders at the bowling alleys next.