Sports are a crucial part of the Basque identity, with matches of strength and agility that can be described as anything from interesting to astonishing. Most Basque sports have their roots in the rich tradition of rural laborers’ competition. Many sports come from exhibitions and grandstanding, and are thus very closely associated with large crowds and gambling. Nonetheless, there are few parts of Basque life untouched by the influence of these sports; even the quintessential Basque beret originated as a trophy for various sporting competitions.
Each region in the Basque Country offers a wide variety of sports, but perhaps no single one is more famous than pilota. Sometimes described as a minimalist effort of squash, the game consists of two players with a racquet, wooden bat, or basket taking turns to strike a ball against a large wall against a large frontis, which can span up to 40 meters. The Basques claim that a variation of pilota called jai alai (right) is the fastest game in the world, with the ball reaching speeds of up to 302 km/hr. This version of the game has become an international sensation, with four US states having courts.
Eighteen of the most important Herri Kirol were chosen in the government’s H18K of culturally imperative traditional Basque sports. For example, Aizkora proba (wood chopping, see left) involves either individuals or teams competing to see who can produce more logs . Other sports, such Sega jokia (see below) originated in the region’s herrixak (hamlets/caserios) and award the individual able to clear the most square kilometers of grass. As it turns out, watching the grass cut is a lot more interesting than watching the grass grow, as hundreds can turn up to watch and gamble on these competitions. Competitions can yield some incredible records, such as the competitor who hoisted a 150 kilogram stone on their shoulder 52 times in 10 minutes, the Basque man who lays claim to the largest stone ever carried at 300kg, or the thousands of records that only exist in the oral Basque tradition.
The importance of sports in the Basque country is significant for many people in the Basque, whether they participate in them or not. According to a mission statement to promote Basque sport by NA Basque, 71% of Basques have participated in some form of Herri Kirola. The emphasis on sport leads to a healthier lifestyle and a focus on community, strengthening oneself and overcoming limits. Even so, the more traditional sports have a power and difficulty that most “elite” athletes in Spain or the US would be able to compete. They truly are a treasure of the Basque culture.