Basque pelota: A painful sport eyes a wider 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 of golf.

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

The barehanded 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.

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. Some players tape their hands heavily, but that doesn’t provide much protection.

“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 kinds 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 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. A few decades ago it was near zero.

The Basque provinces are famous for rural sports competitions that are rooted in ancient traditions and often rely on brute strength — 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 governing International Federation of Basque Pelota (FIPV). “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 says just about all the players are amateurs. Male players 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, about 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 150 mph. Some boosters suggest the speeds reach 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

Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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