National Geographic : 1922 Jan
THE LAND OF THE BASQUES Another popular sport in the Basque provinces is one confined to the iron min ing regions-that of stone-drilling. Only the strongest of miners are physically capable of engaging in these contests of muscular force, and there have been many instances of death from overexertion dur ing these battles of human energy thrown against large blocks of rock. It would be difficult to find a sport any where in the world that so taxes the power of endurance of the participants. It is in many ways a cruel spectacle. I once mentioned this to a Basque, and his scornful reply was: "Yes, perhaps; but not half so cruel as your prize-fights in America." HOW THE STONE DRILLING CONTESTS ARE STAGED These games are the occasion for great festivities in the mining towns. The champion from one little mining town will be sent to combat against the native son of another, and the betting, as well as the feeling, runs high. The home champion, generally a giant in stature, has been the popular hero of his district for weeks. In the Basque mining sections, as in those of other coun tries, wages are high, and much of it is thrown away in drinking and gambling. Thus it happens that the hero spends the days preceding the fiesta in consuming the fine wines, champagne, and heavy dinners thrust upon him by his admirers rather than in intensive training, the idea ap parently being that he cannot fail if he has been generously fed upon the fat of the land for a sufficient period. The day arrives. The invading barre nador, or stone-driller, enters the town, supported by most of the male population of his neighborhood with pockets full of duros to be placed upon their favorite. The town dignitaries appear upon one of the balconies of a prominent house on the small, carefully swept plaza. The other balconies all round the little square are soon filled, chiefly with women, while the men crowd onto the plaza itself, as close as possible to the rope which marks off the rectangle in the center where the contest is to take place. Great excitement is in the air as the last bets are placed. Two pairs of large oxen, straining at every step, slowly drag into the open space enormous blocks of stone, leaving behind them tracks of heavily packed earth. This is a diversion of primitive nature, probably so popular because all of the spectators are those who are faced with the dire necessity of earning their daily bread by the hardest sort of physical toil. To give "tone" to the occasion, there is first a short contest of wood-hewers, called in the Basque tongue aiskoralaris, who chop through logs laid out in the plaza. This, however, is merely an hors d'oeuvre. Then exclamations of excited antici pation are heard; the crowd presses a little closer to the roped arena. The two contestants appear and are loudly applauded as they remove caps and alpargatas and as each, barefooted, climbs upon his block of rock. Each rock has marked upon its top sur face eight rings to indicate where the holes are to be drilled. The contest lasts two hours, and the winner is he who either has completed the perforations of the eight holes or who has advanced farther toward that end. The barrenadores, standing upright on the blocks of stone, place their heels to gether, the feet forming a right angle close to the indicated marking on the rock. Between these bare feet the heavy iron bar in their powerful hands must rise and fall, each stroke deepening the hole. The slightest deviation in aim of any stroke, with the Herculean force of the barrenador behind it, would surely de stroy a foot. Little fear of such an acci dent, however, for their arms move up and down with the precision of a ma chine. CONTENDERS ARE COACHED BY "GOD FATHERS" Each of the contenders chooses a friend or two to act as coaches. These "god fathers," as they are called, stand near their champion, moving their bodies up and down like a pump handle, serving as a pendulum to regulate the strokes of the steel bar. They signal each blow with a "Haup-haup." They tire sooner than the barrenadores themselves, and have to be replaced sev eral times during the monotonous two hours.