Jai-Alai – Time outruns the fastest sport on earth

5 March 2011

Neatly dressed in jock shirts and skate helmets, two teams enter a multistory arena half the size of a football field, applauded by a crowd of fans who have placed their bets and cheer on from the stands.

The players, too light for rugby and too heavy for Russian ballet, courteously shake hands while the onlookers get ready for light speed.

As the referee gives the go ahead, one of the players throws a pelota (small ball) to the ground a couple of times, catches it in his cesta (wicker basket attached to his arm) and hurls it as fast as 300km/h against the far granite wall. Jai-Alai is on!

Both teams take turns at catching the returning pelota and violently throwing it back at diabolical speeds, in a sweaty and breath-taking mixture of running, rolling, and jumping that is not for the faint of heart. Points are won when the opposing team fails to catch the ball, the game usually lasting from seven to nine points.

Away from the arenas, hot debate still surrounds the origins of this two-century old sport that has been entertaining audiences since 1789. Spain argues that it sprung from Marquina, a town hidden in the northeastern corner of the Basque region of the country, where it was played in the courtyards of churches after Sunday mass. In Latin-America, several countries embrace the claim that it was invented by the Mayan civilization and later brought to Europe by returning Spaniards. However, both sides of the river reach a consensus on one irrefutable fact – it is the fastest sport in the world, its hypersonic pelota making its way into the Guinness Book of World Records in 1979, when a Newport player threw it at 302,55km/h.

However, time seems to be catching up on this fast-moving deporte, as the sold-out arenas of the 60’s and 70’s give way to stands populated only here and there. And where once vibrant high-bettor crowds glued their eyes to cesta-armed gentlemen ready for battle, now a few people read newspapers to escape the drudgery of more conventional betting sports such as dog racing and horse racing.

In her essay ‘The History of Basque Pelota in the Americas’, sports specialist Carmela Urza explains that the lack of commercial success of the game, along with acculturation and the drop of Basque immigrant stocks in the Americas are some of the precursors of this downfall. Today, commercial cesta punta frontons are in danger of disappearing altogether, she fears.

She goes on to add that Jai-Alai is further endangered by how physically demanding it is, leaving those who practice it with life threatening injuries. Another fact is left unmentioned, but before helmets were introduced in the 1960’s, some 30 players died during Jai-Alai matches in the 20th century, on account of the pelotas hitting them on the head at nightmarish speeds.

Some struggle to keep this fast and dangerous game alive in the Viva Las Vegas! nation, where it was still highly popular during the 90’s. Today, slot machines and high-stakes poker tables are introduced into Florida frontons in the hopes of drawing more betters into the indoor court.

However, for some professional and amateur players the sport that was once embraced by Babe Ruth and Ernst Hemingway has completely fallen on the backwater of under-appreciation.

But while Jai-Alai may perhaps be on the verge of extinction, its myths linger on. Many still remember with fondness the golden-age that produced all-time stars such as Goicoechea, known for his powerful cortada shot (ball thrown low and hard to the inside); and larger-than-life icons like 19th century Chiquito de Eibar, who was such an unbeatable player that fair-play required him to use the cesta on his left hand.

Article: Sebastiao Martins

Photo Credit: Jon Iraundegi