Lawn Bowls / One for the Books

Longtime record keeper Norman Spiro puts his labor of love online for all to see .

When Norman Spiro hasn't been attending lawn bowls finals, worldwide events or dictating game reports to his life partner during the past four years, he has been working on a project to preserve 25 years of intensive statistical and historical research. This week, his efforts bore fruit with the public launching of his website dedicated to "record the history of bowls in Israel from its very beginnings way back in 1953."

"Fantastic - what a piece of work!" commented David Rhys-Jones, a leading broadcaster in the U.K., on the website guestbook. "We are blessed to have Norman caring for Israeli Bowls in all its aspects: player, officer, journalist but above all, historian," wrote George Kaminsky, one of Israel Lawn Bowls' current leaders. The site is filled with pictures, statistics, biographies and even minutes from club meetings in the early 1950s.

Spiro's passion with record keeping began in 1984, when he started writing articles for the league. He says he knew keeping records would be important. All those records appear on his new website. In order to compile the pre-1984 data he collected magazines from various players. "Max Spitz had quite a lot," recalls Spiro, referring to the South African-born Israeli who founded the first lawn bowls club in Ramat Gan in 1953. He also recreated games from old scorecards.

Spiro, 85, continues to go to all the finals and collect scorecards from each match to add to the statistical record.

In the pre-Web days, Spiro turned one of the rooms in his Ramat Hasharon apartment into a lawn bowls repository. His library is color-coded - green for international competitions, yellow for local, pink for the Atlantic games, and he gets excited rediscovering old articles about and by him. (He continues to contribute to Anglo File Sports. )

The room is filled with memorabilia from events such as the World Bowls in Scotland of 1984, the Israel-Ireland test series of 1991, the 14th Maccabiah Games (a banner of appreciation from the Australian delegation ), pins and badges.

Spiro is known abroad more for his black tape recorder than his prowess on the green. He points to the trophy cabinet and quips, "Mostly my wife" - referring to his late wife Mickey, a master bowler who passed away in 1993. He says he often recalls moments of great excitement when he tunes into some dozens of the tapes he has kept.

Spiro was born in Cape Town and grew up in Durbanville, a little village of 800 people with 10 Jewish families. A graduate of both Heder and the general Zionist Bnei Zion movement, he says growing up he "played every bloody sport in South Africa," including tennis, badminton, rugby, cricket and yachting. But he didn't play bowls. In university, he boxed because it was the only sport that did not have competitions on Shabbat. He eventually became the university boxing champ.

He immigrated to Israel in 1962 with Mickey and their four children, whose ages ranged from two to eight. Coming from a sports-crazy country, he wanted to do something but was not interested in Israel's national sport, soccer, which he calls a gentlemen's game played by hooligans. Rather, Spiro played tennis a few years. He checked if he could do yachting, but there was no marina. He would have to put his boat with his brand new duty-free motor car.

The tragic death of his middle brother prompted Spiro in 1967 to move back to South Africa, but the family returned to Israel in 1970. Spiro says he had to do some sport that was still a challenge. He was too old for rugby, but found a new love in lawn bowls.

Roped into the game

Max Spitz made him come out to the Ramat Gan bowls club, says Spiro. "Straightaway he got me on the committee." Spiro eventually became chairman of the Israel Lawn Bowls Association, following Spitz's 30-year run at the top, and spent 25 years on its executive. He is now the honorary life president.

At the start the club was all-South African and remained that way for years. The 1980s saw a surge of immigration, and within two or three years there were teams in Netanya, Ra'anana, Ramat Hasharon, Kiryat Ono, Jerusalem and Haifa. To this day, Ra'anana is still the biggest club. In fact, Spiro says, the club helps in the absorption process, as it attracts many South Africans who play lawn bowls.

The future of lawn bowls depended on attracting Israelis, according to Spiro or else it would "go bye-bye." It wasn't exactly the Israelis' style; they were put off by the English and the white clothing, says Spiro. So, he switched the language to Hebrew, put out thousands of circulars - and elicited exactly one reply.

He then went door to door, asking people to "just try this game." A month's work produced 50 names; about 40 of those who expressed interest attended an open afternoon. Immediately 20 said it wasn't their game, but Spiro persevered with the remaining 20. Coaching them constantly, he says that after three or four months the 20 turned into ten and after a year the number was five.

But, Spiro says triumphantly, those five brought another five. The Ramat Gan club had dropped from 150 to about 40 or 50 members - today he is the only English-speaker among 100 members. Nationwide there are some 600 bowlers, about 60 percent of them Hebrew speakers.

"This has been my greatest joy, never mind the bloody titles," he says.

Spiro also invested in the future of the sport by training a youth team, which eventually toured Ireland. Some of those players came back to form the young guard among the adult players.

Israel is one of 48 world bowls countries and has a creditable record. The men finished third overall in 1992 with a gold medal in the triples, while the women earned their first medal in 1981 with a bronze in the fours. Ruthie Gilor won gold for Israel in the singles at last year's Atlantic Games.

Spiro gets tremendous help from his partner of 16 years, Yehudith Rozenblat. "We met on the bowling green while she was with the Ramat Hasharon club," he recalls. "Every page on my site is via her hands, and for four years of site-building she had to persevere with my demands and impatience."

The retiree - who is recognized by some for portraying Saba Glida (Grandpa Ice Cream ) on a dairy board television campaign on Channel 2 in the early 1990s - said last year he was worried about who would succeed him. "I'm getting tired, man," he said. "It's a lot of work."

He still has not found a successor, but at least now he can rest assured that he has found a place in cyberspace for the records he compiled.