Basque pelota is looking for a bigger niche

GUADALAJARA, Mexico (AP)—Cricket is sure to stump a Chilean. Argentines are
unlikely to understand American football. Baseball is bound to confound a
Russian. And don’t expect a Greek to get the intricacies golf.

But, hey, they’re all easy compared to getting a grip on the world of Basque
pelota, a vast array of court sports played by pounding a ball against a wall
with a bare hand, a paddle, a racket or a basket.

The bare-hand variety is the essence of the sport, which has its roots in
the Basque provinces of southwestern France and northern Spain but is part of
the Pan Americans Games in Mexico. And it’s also the one that can cause the most
pain.

Played with little protection, repeatedly smashing the ball causes swelling
which is often relieved by using a razor to cut small incisions between the
knuckles to draw blood and bring some relief.

“We’re used to it,” said Tony Huarte, a top U.S. player of hand pelota at
the Pan Am Games.

Huarte grew up in San Francisco and moved to his parents’ birthplace near
Pamplona in northern Spain when he was 12.

“People say: ‘Wow, you guys are nuts for playing with a bare hand,”’
Huarte said. “And you realize they are kind of right. We are kind of nuts. It
does hurt. If you just stop and think about it for a minute it looks crazy from
the outside.”

Basque pelota is simple at its core, but it consists of 14 disciplines
played on four different types of courts that vary in size and are made up of a
front wall, a longer side wall running down the left, and a back wall. The balls
vary in size, weight and composition with some made of leather and others of
rubber.

Top officials know they have too many varieties and are trying to modernize
to ease confusion. But it won’t be easy to popularize the sport and simplify it
for a boarder audience.

Basque pelota is played in about 30 countries, most in Latin America, where
it has spread and been modified in each different country.

In the distant hope of becoming an Olympic sport, officials met last year
and decided to prioritize six varieties—four for men and two for women—and
change the court to essentially one standard size. They must also increase
female participation, which is only 20 percent at the Pan American Games.

Just a few decades about it was near zero.

The Basque provinces are famous for their rural sports competitions, which
are rooted in ancient traditions and often rely on brute strength. Events
involved rural pursuits like wood chopping, stone lifting, sheep shearing, anvil
lifting and donkey racing.

“Basque pelota will always be popular in Spain and France,” said Angel
Arraiza, general secretary of the FIPV, the governing body of the sport. “But
we must change to survive or we’ll become only folklore like the rural sports.”

Arraiza grew up in Pamplona and recalls his school had three courts for
Basque pelota.

“It was play this or football—nothing else,” he said. “Tennis wasn’t
big, neither was Formula One. None of our sports seemed to be competing for
attention as they do now.”

FIPV President Dominique Boutineau said there is only one goal for the
sport.

“The dream of everyone is that one day Basque pelota can get into the
Olympics,” he said. “We have to simplify it. Not eliminate, but simplify.”

Realistically, the Olympics are a long shot. In the short-term,
simplification will allow the sport to be played in more regional competitions
like the Central American and Caribbean Games, and the Bolivarian Games.

“I think it’s going to be really, really hard,” said Huarte, the U.S.-born
player. “It’s going to take a long time. We’re going to have to change a lot of
things; the way we practice, the places we practice. The courts are different.
There are so many different sports. I think it is going to take a lot of time.”

Arraiza estimated 99.9 percent of players are amateurs. Male players all
complete in white trousers, women wear white skirts or shorts.

Huarte, who plays doubles with his brother Josetxo, works in a computer
store and also helps out in a family-run restaurant in the small town of Amaiur,
located about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the French border.

The paddle and racket games are quick, but the fastest of all is “jai
alai,” played with a basket that can whip a ball at speeds up to 240 kph (150
mph). Some boosters have suggested the speeds reach 300 kph (185 mph), making it
one of the fastest games on earth.

“I grew up with it, but I’m sure it’s not easy to follow with all its
different rules and looks,” said Alexis Zabaleta, a 24-year-old fan from
Biarritz, France, who is spending his vacation at the Pan American Games
watching friends compete.

“There is not enough public knowledge about our game,” he said. “I think
we have to move into the new age.”

Officials are trying.

Stephen Wade can be reached at http://twitter.com/StephenWadeAP

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