GUADALAJARA, Mexico — The Bolerama Tapatio is rocking with fans chanting “ME-HI-CO, ME-HI-CO, ME-HI-CO,” drowning out the thunder of falling pins.
The bleachers are set up where the ball racks would be, and no one is wearing rental shoes with the sizes embossed in big numbers on the back.
And finally, none of the competitors are swilling beer.
This isn’t just any old bowling alley, this is the Pan American Games.
“There are a lot of people who bowl, but not a lot who do it at this level,” said Chris Barnes, who won gold for the United States in men’s doubles. “The same with soccer. There are a lot of people who can kick the ball. That does not make them soccer players.”
Bowling has an image problem, and top officials know it. The sport has a low profile, it draws few fans and little media attention, and big-time sponsors are scarce.
Kevin Dornberger, the president of the sport’s governing body, the FIQ, said plans are afoot for a televised world tour in 2013.
“That will go a long way toward curing our visibility problem,” said Dornberger, adding that people need to distinguish between “beer and fun” bowling and the elite variety.
The Pan American Games is about as close as many of the world’s best bowlers can get to the Olympics. Like squash, cricket, roller-skating and sumo wrestling, bowling is recognized by the International Olympic Committee but not part of the Olympic program.
“I think we deserve to be in the Olympics,” said Neil Stremmel, the vice president of the United States Bowling Congress. “You can see somebody at your local bowling center smoking and drinking, and who has a big gut. They might bowl a good game here or there. But those aren’t the people you see on TV, or the people you see here.”
Looking ahead, Dornberger is working to get bowling on an IOC short list in 2015. From that list a sport could be picked in 2017 to be added to the 2024 Olympic program.
“It’s a long way out,” Dornberger said. “But if we don’t start planning now, it’s a longer way out.”
Bowlers want more respect, and they get it at the Pan American Games.
At the 42-lane Bolerama Tapatio, Barnes and teammate Bill O’Neill mingle with fans, cheerfully signing autographs and making small talk. Two of the world’s top-ranked bowlers, they teamed for gold in doubles and one is likely to earn another title in singles today.
Antonio Franco Munoz paid $20 for a souvenir bowling pin, walked right up to the two Americans and asked them to sign it.
“Here it was very easy to get the autograph,” Munoz said.