Basque Country’s ‘fastest sport in world’ running out of support
Pelota, a symbol of Basque identity, is struggling to stand out from other sports in Spain
Patxi Ziskar (in red), head coach of the Kurene club: “We want [the young players] to be good people, to have the right values regarding their behaviour and how they treat opponents and playing partners.” Photograph: Guy Hedgecoe
Veteran jai alia player Iñaki Osa Goikoetxea: he estimates there are now only around 70 jai alai professionals in the US, compared with up to 500 earlier in his career. Photograph: Guy Hedgecoe
Children play at Kurene pelota club in Sopela. Photograph: Guy Hedgecoe
With his tall, muscular frame, tanned face and Red Bull baseball cap, Iñaki Osa Goikoetxea tends to stand out from the crowd in his home town of Zumaia, on Spain’s Basque coast. That’s not surprising, because he has spent most of his adult life abroad as a professional jai alai player.
On the courts of Florida, his athletic body was perfectly suited to jai alai, which involves flinging a hard ball against a wall with a large, banana- shaped basket. Based in Miami, he excelled and became a multiple world champion in a sport that the Basques invented and then exported round the world, not only to the United States, but also to France, Latin America, the Philippines and elsewhere.
Osa Goikoetxea (35) is just one of dozens of Basque jai alai players who have made their fortune abroad. However, last summer he decided to return home. His employers had cut his pay by 70 per cent as the sport, heavily financed by gambling, faced cutbacks prompted in great part by new US betting regulations and an overall drop in interest.
“The situation is getting worse and worse. Every year it’s getting worse,” he says. “I feel really bad because I’ve played jai alai professionally for 20 years and I’m still playing, but I see the people coming behind me and they don’t have too many opportunities.”
He estimates there are now only around 70 jai alai professionals in the US, compared with up to 500 earlier in his career.
Jai alai is not only struggling in its international hub of Florida. Back in Spain it is fighting for prominence with football and other activities in the internet age. The problem is also affecting jai alai’s sibling sports, which together are known as pelota.
The most widely played variation of pelota within the Basque Country is handball, played by striking a small hard cloth ball against a wall with bare hands. In the other main category, palas, or heavy wooden clubs, are used as racquets.
Pelota’s decline is deeply worrying for those who see it as a key element of regional identity. Olatz González Abrisketa, an anthropologist who specialises in the sport, describes it as “a founding ritual of modern Basque culture”.
“The idea of nobility, of being a transparent person who won’t cheat you, who is honest and whose word is their honour – all of that is learnt by playing pelota,” she says. “Pelota balls and courts are often described as being ‘noble’. You want the ball to be ‘noble’, that is, not to do anything unpredictable. There’s a clear narrative related to nobility in pelota.”
Although handball has survived better than the other variations of pelota in recent years, the overall crisis is undeniable. According to the El País newspaper, the number of officially registered players, coaches and referees involved in all pelota categories in the Basque Country dropped from 3,000 to 2,500 between 2010 and 2014 alone.
“At the school my kids go to they can’t play pelota. Instead, they play football or basketball,” says González Abrisketa. “There are a lot of sports to choose from and children prefer to play sports other than pelota.”
Ander Ugarte, a leading producer of pelota balls and a well- known commentator on the sport, believes that lack of leadership has allowed it to drift in recent years.
“If we don’t look after pelota, it will die and become nothing more than a folkloric activity,” he says. “We need to defend what belongs to us. Pelota is about suffering. You have to work at it every day, you’re on your own.
“And, in the modern world, who likes to suffer? It’s a lot easier to buy a ticket and win the lottery than to use the values that pelota gives you.”
Still, there are young Basques who still shun the siren call of more glamorous sports – and are willing to blister their hands on the pelota court.
In the small town of Sopela, near Bilbao, the local pelota club, Kurene, has made a concerted effort to get children hooked on the sport, with more than 100 playing members. As always with pelota, values are as important as technique.
Good peoplePatxi Ziskar
There are signs, as well, that the top end of the sport is getting its act together, with the Basque region’s three provincial pelota federations working together on a €400,000 three- year project funded by a business group and announced in April.
Among the aims of the plan is to “relaunch grassroots pelota”, promoting it among schoolchildren as well as women, who do not feature at a professional level.