The Manly Game of Basque Pelota

No 39

The ancient sport of pelota, or handball, is not Basque in origin. But especially since the 19th century, this autonomous region in northern Spain has treated the sport as a national pastime—and put its own distinctive spin on it.

Handball occupies the heart of Basque village culture. For years, there was no Basque word for a pelota court—the arena was simply the town square. The Basque Country's great players rise to near-mythical status; to this day, true believers maintain that the biggest stars do not train.

Interestingly, the greatest rivalries have adhered to the same basic pattern: the crafty front-court player, or Delantero, versus the Zaguero—the noble slugger. Individual fans may root for one or the other as they see fit, explains Olatz Gonzales Abrisketa, an anthropologist and author of Basque Handball: A Ritual and an Aesthetic. “Morally, though," she says, “the ideal pelotari, the archetype we see on the great posters for matches, is the strong man—he who hits the pelota so hard it reaches the end of the court."

Basque culture at large is loved and sometimes loathed for its masculine-oriented ideals. Those ideals are one reason bare-handed pelota is more popular in the Basque Country than variations that substitute a basket or paddle. (Bare-handed players can spend upwards of an hour taping their hands before the game.) And the Basque ball, rock-hard and wrapped in thin wool, requires a higher threshold for pain than those used elsewhere.

Even if the insistence on manly fortitude has been tempered somewhat—not every professional these days has permanently dislocated fingers—it does still persevere. Girls are not expected to play beyond a certain age, and many Basque women retain a view of the sport that is ambivalent at best.

This documentary was made from footage shot for Song of the Basques (2015), a feature documentary by Emily Lobsenz. For more, visit the film's website.

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