You can play it with a bat or a racket or with a large basket strapped to your wrist, it’s played in a court, it’s played against a wall, or in the street – it’s pelota, and it’s very Spanish.
Once played between Greeks and Romans, pelota has been around for thousands of years and countless nations claim to have invented it and made it more sophisticated; but wander around many towns in Spain and you can still hear the solid thud of a rubber ball hitting the wall as children play this ancient game, unaware that they are passing on a mighty heritage.
Known as ‘pila’ in Roman times it was introduced by the Romans to the many peoples they conquered as they advanced across Western Europe. Its subsequent evolution in France and the Basque country would derive into ‘jeu de paume’, which means a game using the palm of your hand. This game, which was played against walls and in town squares, kept its name of paume (palm), in spite of the progressive use of various hitting instruments. The bourgeois and aristocrats used gloves and wicker rackets and ‘pilota’ or ‘jeu de paume’ is undoubtedly the forerunner of tennis as we know it today. The word ‘pelota’ literally means ball in Spanish and the game played today is descended from the very earliest games played by Man when he invented a round object that could be thrown. Many materials were used in this quest for the perfect sphere; vegetables, cotton, wool, rags, animal hides filled with cereal grains…but it was the industrialisation of rubber production that had the biggest effect on the old ‘pelotas’. Rubber was not only easy to make but the resulting balls had a much better bounce than anything used before. This revolutionised the game and it was at this time (around 1820) that pilota separated itself out into a game played against a wall rather than over a net.
Pelota is played primarily in the Basque country, the Pyrenees and in the Valencian Community, where it is the national sport. The game does, however, still have pockets of continuance in some rural areas of Ireland, Belgium, Italy and South America. It is called Jai-Alai in America and there are hundreds of courts in the Florida area, where huge bets are placed on the games.
It has a complicated structure understood by few people other than its aficionados. The reason for its complexity is because pelota (or pilota in Valencian, Basque and Catalan) actually covers a variety of sports played with a ball using your hand, a racket, a wooden bat (pala), or a basket (cesta) against a wall (frontón). And if you think that’s confusing you can play pelota in one of a number of different styles of ‘courts’, the main ones being a ‘fronton’, which is basically a wall and a ‘trinquet’, an indoor court. The nearest equivalent would probably be a squash court but that needs four walls and you can play pelota with only one and that wouldn’t even begin to cover the ‘chisetera’ - a huge basket-type construction tied to the hand in some forms of pelota. It is said that these baskets were invented when a group of children were playing catch, and one child who'd hurt his hand wanted to join in, so he got hold of a broken basket and used it to catch and throw the ball... very fast, as it turned out.
Recently, some initiatives have organised pelota championships trying to unify the different games played all around the world, in order to standardise them into two or three simpler styles, with fixed ball weights, rules and court sizes. There are, of course, criticisms about this, since the original traits of each particular style would be lost and bearing in mind there are at least six different ways to play Pelota in the Basque country alone, unification is an unlikely prospect.
The Basques are very proud of their pilota heritage and most towns will have a ‘trinquet’, the indoor stadium in which the game is played. Basque pilota was an exhibition Olympic sport in Mexico in 1968 and Barcelona in 1992 and could be an exhibition sport in London 2012. International competitions are dominated by the Basques who have elevated the game into an art form.
The most characteristic trait of Valencian pilota is that it is always played with the bare hand (with some minimal protections) and it is sometimes not played against a wall. Instead, as the ancient Greeks played it and modern tennis is played, two individuals or teams are placed face to face separated by a line on the ground or a net.
Valencian pilota is frequently played in the streets or like the Basque game in a trinquet, which can be quite different in size and form depending on the area. There are many different forms of pilota Valenciana, the most frequently played are escala i corda, raspall, galotxa and llargues.
Spectators of Valencian pilota can also bet on one of the two sides, and the trinquets and referee get a commission on these bets. The Valencian pilota season is closed from Aug 1 to Aug 31.
For more information see the official Basque pelota site www.fipv.net/eng/
And www.fepelotacv.com/ for the Valencian federation.